Posts Tagged ‘Sci Fi’

The Foxfire Document

by Dennis Humphrey

 

TAB A, APPENDIX 1, ANNEX B (INTELLIGENCE) TO OPORD 18-01 [OPERATION FOXFIRE]

 

Description: The following text is a transcript of “The Foxfire Document,” from which the current operation takes its name.  Analysis of the document and its possible links to the ongoing epidemic, as well as the epidemic’s potential development into a global pandemic, follow the transcript itself. This transcript was collected from a post on the website The Watcher’s Thread, a conspiracy blog that was taken down by a massive DNS attack moments after this text was retrieved. The origin of the DNS attack, and the whereabouts of the blogger/editor of The Watcher’s Thread, Asher Chase, remain unknown, as does the location of the original of “The Foxfire Document.” It is also unknown whether those responsible for the DNS attack know that this transcript was successfully extracted by coalition forces before the attack. Efforts to contain the spread of the document online, in order to prevent public panic, have proven as difficult as containing the spread of the actual contagion. Should the epidemic grow to global pandemic scale, we must anticipate that intermittent connectivity in world wide networks will complicate efforts to trace the ongoing proliferation of the document in localized nets, despite transfer of coalition networks to satellite-based platforms to avoid terrestrial power grid and network unreliability. However, if containment of the contagion fails, containment of the document may be a moot point.

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**Editor’s Note: I transcribed this text as accurately as I could from digital photographs of the pages, not from the original, which for reasons you shall see soon enough, I declined to handle or even to go near. Some of the original text is missing, where pages in the original were stuck together or where other deterioration of the manuscript made text illegible. The places where pages were stuck are indicated by an editor’s note, and places where a word or words on a viewable page were illegible are marked by ellipses in square brackets […]  

~ Asher Chase, Editor, The Watcher’s Thread

* * *

            My name is Newman Adams. I pieced this manuscript together from my own notes and from the journal I found in the cave. I apologize for the deteriorated condition of these pages, and for the luminescent dust that no doubt covers them. You shall see soon enough the import of these things, and I trust you will understand once you see what I have to reveal. These are the last words to go into this narrative, but to make it less confusing, I had to rearrange […] cannot put a date on this entry, as I no longer know what day, month, or even year it is. This introduction and my notes on the final page in this reconstructed document will be my last tasks before I seal these words in a canteen and set it adrift in the underground river in the hopes it may someday be found. If anyone is reading this, then at least this one hope of mine has been fulfilled. I’ll start with the first entry I wrote, soon after I fell into this place.

 

            272017SMAR03 20:17(CST) 27 MAR 03: I considered using military date-time group format for this log, but in case a civilian finds it, I will use more universally recognizable ways to denote time and date. I’m putting this down while I still can remember details. My mind is foggy, […] can’t trust anything to memory […] feels like my head is, I don’t know, overfull. Crowded. Maybe I did sustain a head injury after all, or maybe it’s just […] this hole. I’ve been trapped here for hours, but maybe I should start from the beginning.

            I was hiking yesterday, alone again, on an unofficial side trail off the Sacre Coeur Wilderness Area, deep in the Trinity Mountains of Western Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border. These old mountains represent a once much larger expanse of the world’s former surface, piled up tight now in ribbon candy folds of the earth’s crust when the South American plate punched the Gulf Coast of North America in the chin hundreds of thousands of millennia ago. I know this for the same reason—well, the main reason— I was hiking the trail […] student of this region that is like no other […] devoted years of my life to a course of study no university could provide: a mix of geography, geology, anthropology, folklore, and more. Within 70 miles of this spot lie the best quartz deposits in the world, hot springs with reputed healing powers, a diamond mine, […], and extensive cave networks. There are even legends about buried Confederate gold, hidden as rogue rebels fled into the Indian Territories to escape capture after the Civil War.  My girl, no she never was my girl, not really—God, why can’t I recall her name?—she would have laughed at these notions, called them silly dreams. Anyway, despite all these notable features of these mountains, I never would have conceived, much less believed what I found.

            It started with my strange conversation with Lester Coolidge, that old timer I found rocking on the sagging, warped front porch of the only remaining cabin in Scratch Hollow. The decrepit cabin’s structure did not look too far behind the other collapsed and decaying buildings of the nearly extinct 19th Century settlement, currently in the last stages of falling in on itself. The cabin had obviously never seen the likes of electricity or indoor plumbing. Old Lester himself was like a museum artifact, an old-west tintype photograph come to life. He even looked somehow faded, and he stared at me in that same stern, harsh way many subjects seemed to glare at the camera in those old frontier days. […] certainly intense and very explicit when I had asked him about this particular part of these mountains. It didn’t seem I was paying that close an attention to him at the time, distracted as I was by the cloud of mosquitoes he seemed not to notice at all […] judging from the image I cannot now banish from my mind, I must have seen more than I thought. I can still see his craggy face, rough as the mountains themselves, wrinkled with age and marred by some skin condition I could not quite place—waxy, scaly, weepy, and pale, lending a faint grey-green pallor to his skin tone […] wonder if some underlying liver condition or malaria were to blame, despite government claims it no longer exists in the US. The aforementioned plague of mosquitoes solidified that idea in my mind, though I wonder now if I only wish it were something as mundane as malaria.  For all the tens of thousands of people malaria kills each year, at least it has a name.

            “Well, Mr. Coolidge,” I said, cutting to the chase, “I was actually more interested in getting off the beaten path. I was on the ridge north east of the […] in the river, and I got a good look at some interesting rock formations off to the […] few miles, the next ridge over across the river, like a bunch of rock columns sticking right out of the top of the ridge.”

            As I spoke, the old man tensed, and his waxy complexion looked even more ashen. After a moment, he looked dead at me with the one rheumy, jaundiced eye that still worked, jabbing the stem of his corncob pipe in my direction. “If you don’t listen to another thing I say, young feller, you mark my words on this here.  Do not, under any circumstances, stray from the marked trail up by them rock columns up past […] If you hadn’t already told me you done seen ‘em up there, I wouldn’t tell you a damn thing about ‘em at all. Don’t go messing up there.”

            “Why?” I swatted vainly at the cloud of mosquitoes.

            He fixed me with that rheumy eye and worked his gums on the stem of the pipe—he had no teeth to do it. He stared at me that way long enough that a bead of sweat had time to trickle its slow way from his forehead, down to the tip of his lumpy grey-green nose. After hanging there a moment, the drop fell to the dank dirt. I thought for a second he might spit on the ground at my feet for questioning his original advice. At length he said, “You ever had you a real first rate nightmare, young feller?”

            “Well sure,” I said. “I guess I’ve had my share of scary dreams.”

            “Ever not wake up from one?” He nodded curtly to punctuate his sentence, dislodging another drop of sweat. He returned at that point to his rocking chair to signify that was all he had to say on that matter, and the subject was closed to further discussion.

            Well, I imagine you can just guess what I did after taking my awkward leave of the old man. The sun was already low in the sky as I trekked further […] of the last Forest Service road than any officially-marked trails go, into the vast wilds of the steepest parts of these old mountains. The trail I followed was older than the Forest Service, far older. An untrained eye might have judged it to be a game trail, and so it was since the deer of those woods almost certainly used it to walk up and down the ridge. However, the old marker trees I followed suggested more than deer once used the trail in some all but forgotten past. Ancient trees that had been bent over in telling ways when they were saplings still point the way for those who know what to look for.

            After following the marker trees for over […] hours through difficult terrain, I entered an area featuring jutting columns of rock along the ridge top, the ones I had seen from a distance before. A near-by marker tree indicated the trail angled downslope a bit to skirt the rocky outcrop. I was just about to follow the indicated route when something near the rock columns caught my eye: a soft green glow, almost invisible against the bright red light of the setting sun. I rubbed my eyes, but the hint of green light remained. It drifted, as if on a breeze, though there was none, drifted toward a gap between two rock columns, and it disappeared between them. When I investigated the place where it had gone out of sight, I noticed something else: a petroglyph, just beside the gap between two of the rock columns. I stopped, and I rubbed at the lichen encrusting the rock. The image was clearer after the scrubbing, but not much, being worn almost completely away by time. Closer inspection of the stone column on the other side of the gap revealed an identical petroglyph, also nearly completely obscured by lichen and the erosion of ages. The design, as much as I could make it out, was an upside down stick figure man. Above each carving of the upside down man was what looked like a horizontal oval with a circle inside like […] or primitive eye glyph, I suspected. I was pretty sure I knew what that would mean, and it sure makes sense now. The place, whatever lay beyond the gap in the rocks, seemed to have been taboo to whomever carved that glyph. The gap did not go far between the rocks before it turned, blocking further view of where it might lead. As I peered into the gap, however, I thought I could just discern the faint green glow again, just around the bend in the gap. I thought I must be tired, but it did arouse my interest even more.

            I have never been a particularly superstitious man, a fact that often unnerved the superstitious interpreters we worked with out of FOB Salerno, […] supposedly vetted locals who steadfastly refused to go near the watchtowers beside the old cemetery or near certain caves in the rugged terrain around Tora Bora—which translates from the Pashto language as “black cave.” Part of me still wonders if those translators were gaslighting us to erode unit morale with feigned jumpiness and with hints and stories of whispered voices in the dark, Russian or Farsi or even extinct forms of Dardú or completely unknown languages in those desolate, rocky places. Some of our guys got nervous as cats, but I never felt the first twinge of spookiness. I still think that fact bothered those so-called interpreters, made them treat me with suspicion, whether because they knew I was onto their tricks or because they genuinely wondered how I could walk in supposedly cursed places with perfect ease, I guess I will never know.

            Anyway, there on that unnamed ridge in the Trinity Mountains of Western Arkansas, I was reading an engraved message from someone so far back in time that the rock carvings were barely visible now. My curiosity was insatiable. I was not completely insensitive to the fact that this message was also a dire warning. In fact, it aroused a nagging foreboding in me that seemed to creep from a place so far back into primal instinct that I could not even begin to wonder what about it made me uneasy, like something half remembered from a dream that seems important but defies attempts to recall, even vaguely, why. Still, I asked myself, what could possibly have frightened those ancient people that could still be a danger to me now? Despite hereditary feelings of foreboding, my curiosity and reason won out. I stepped into the gap and proceeded onward.

            Daylight was beginning to fail, so I hurried along the narrow path, twisting right, left, and back to the right. I emerged into an open area, roughly oval, about forty, maybe fifty yards straight across and half again as wide, surrounded by jutting rocks on all sides. The narrow gap where I stood seemed to be the only path into the area. At the far side of this open area stood a single tree, an ancient-looking cedar. Its gnarled trunk bulged like the torso of a tortured soul in places under its shaggy bark. Other places on the twisted bole were denuded of bark to expose smoother, pale pinkish, weathered wood beneath. Its roots reached down around the fractured boulder beneath it like elongated fingers clutching the rock in a claw-like fist. The ground of the entire open area was covered in a confusion of vines of a species I could not at first identify, but that […] not expect to find it naturally occurring in such abundance in such a high, rocky place. But then the glossy, dark green leaves, in clusters of threes, and the waxy white berries gave it away. It was poison ivy. It must have been transplanted there by someone. There was no other explanation, and it must have cost that someone considerable misery to cultivate it there.

            That was not even the most interesting thing about the clearing either.  Just past the center of the clearing in the gathering dusk I saw what I first took to be a swarm of lighting bugs, but as I looked closer, it was not a collection of tiny blinking lights on a swarm of insects. It was a single, pulsating glow, clearer now than the faint glow I’d seen before. Though I had not ever seen it before with my own eyes, […] must be what the folk tales called “foxfire.” I edged toward it, my instincts screaming at my foolish reason, flooding my body with adrenalin and the desire to flee, but my curiosity urged me forward as my rational mind insisted this was, after all, a natural phenomenon, nothing more. Uneven footing on the springy mat of vines complicated my progress as I tried to avoid touching it with my bare skin, and as I moved forward, the glow seemed to move ahead of me, directly toward the tree. It paused its retreat at the base of the tree, and I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was like it was waiting for me […] seemed almost close enough to reach out and determine if it had tangible substance, I felt the vines beneath me give way, and I felt a momentary sense of weightlessness as I plunged downward.

            How far I fell, I could not immediately determine. Though it seemed I fell a long way, I know in such instances our sense of time can be wildly inaccurate. My next sensation was of impact, though to my relief, I seemed to have fallen on something soft and spongy, as though someone had placed a stack of mattresses there for the very purpose of cushioning my fall. A cloud of what I assumed to be dust billowed up from beneath me as I landed. I choked and sputtered for a moment as I took a deep breath after having the wind knocked out of me. There was an odd peppery, earthy smell. I don’t know how much of the dust I sucked in initially, but it must have been a snoot full.  The peppery aspect triggered a sneezing fit that took a while to run its course. In the windup for each sneeze, I inhaled even more of the stuff […] like I was in the CS gas chamber at boot camp. By the time I got my sneezing and breathing somewhat under control, I felt winded and light-headed, like I had hyperventilated. As I lay on my back looking up, wondering how badly hurt I was, I saw the hole through which I fell, […] deep blue patch of twilight sky beyond my reach. Then, to my astonishment, the vines closed slowly over that gap, and the patch of sky was gone. My rational mind, which I must admit was a bit at sea, fought once more to suppress a panicked notion that the vines had done this with volition, as if they possessed the ability and will to move and the malice to seal me into the abyss into which I had fallen. A fleeting image of the Afghan interpreters snickered in my mind […] stained, crooked teeth bared, as though even the memory of them might find satisfaction that my cocky refusal to give in to superstition had finally caught up with me. I shook my head to cast the image out, and I told myself that the springy vines, pushed aside by my weight, were just rebounding back to their previous position. That was all. Still, the slinking suspicion that some malevolence was working against me was hard to shake—is still hard to shake—as I must admit it continues to nag at me now.

            I stared up at the place where the hole had closed […] struggled to convince myself it was all perfectly explainable, I gradually became aware that despite the fact that I was underground, I was not entirely in the dark. A pale green glow bathed the interior of what appeared to be a cave. This new realization did nothing to aid my attempts to dispel my unease, but I again reminded myself there was certainly a scientific explanation.  I was still lying on my back, taking it slow to try to determine if I were injured before moving too much. I could see around me though what appeared to be a great growth of some kind of bio-luminous fungus covering the walls and floor of the cave, which accounted for the softness of the landing and the green glow. An overall background glow radiated from the whole mass of the fungus, but there were brighter points here and there as well. As part of my survival training, I had what I thought was a thorough understanding of fungi. In survival situations, they can be a live-saving food source or a quick death depending on one’s knowledge of them. I was aware that there were species that exhibit bioluminescence, had seen them before, in fact, in caves and wildernesses in […] but I had not known they were indigenous to these particular mountains. I was just about to investigate the fungus further, when I saw something move […]

            […] tried to sit up, and it was then the thing came at me. It was as though a misshapen clump of the fungus on the cave floor had sprung to life and charged at me. It approached me from my left in a crouch, on two bent, lumpy hind legs. Its forelimbs ended in two bulky paws that reached for me. It seemed clear that the thing was intent on using those paws to grab me. Instinctively, my army hand-to-hand combat training kicked in […] rolled to my left toward the thing and grabbed it first. When I had a firm grip on the creature’s forelimb, I rolled right again to try to pull the creature off balance. As I rolled right, I put my left foot in its midsection to push it up off the ground and continue rolling it to the right. As it flipped over in mid air, I let it go and it landed square on its back. I continued my roll up onto my right knee, and as luck would have it, my hand came down on a jagged, fist-sized rock I suppose was dislodged when I fell into the hole. I heaved the rock at the thing before it could right itself. It struck the beast with a soft thud, accompanied by a muffled crunch, like the breaking of a dry stick wrapped in a blanket […] gave a low yelp and a whimper, as it struggled to get up. The thing turned to see if I were going to continue my attack, but my first long look at the thing stopped me, though the dust stirred by my fall into the cave had yet to completely dissipate and partially blocked my view. The creature crouched on its hind legs, one forelimb on the ground, the other cradled against its upper torso where the rock had struck it. Its entire body seemed to be covered in the same spongy fungus that covered the interior of the cave, or maybe it was made of the stuff. It looked at me with wide milky eyes, wheezing as it breathed, a dribble of something frothy and dark at the corner of its mouth. It turned and loped away, using a combination of its hind legs and one of its forelimbs, as some primates do. It disappeared into a side tunnel, out of the green glow of the fungus.

            I retrieved the rock I had thrown, in case I might need it again, and I considered pursuing the thing, but on second thought, I feared it might lead me into some trap if I chased headlong after it. I began to get myself settled down so I could think. I seemed uninjured, aside from some likely bruising, from either the fall or the combat with the fungus creature…

 

            [Here two pages of the original manuscript were stuck together. The bearer of the original document remains unwilling to risk parting them until obtaining expert advice~ Asher Chase]

 

…with me is a small backpack with limited supplies, as I had been traveling light on a small side trip from my camp near Shade Lake. It was just supposed to be a short day hike. Here’s a complete inventory of what I have with me, besides the clothes on my back:

1 small flashlight, with no spare batteries

1 qt. bottle of water

5 energy bars, 2.5 oz. each (250 calories each)

1 lightweight sleeping bag

1 pocket knife, with locking blade and boot clip

1 key ring with six keys and a bottle opener attached

1 wristwatch, with calendar

1 set of dog tags

1 wallet, practically empty

1 cell phone, already dead

            My most urgent needs are water and food if I spend very long in here. I think it unlikely anyone will come looking for me since no one but a crazy old hillbilly who is the last remaining resident of a long forgotten ghost town could possibly even guess where I am, and even he specifically told me to stay away from here. I will have to find a way out myself. That may take time, and that means I will need to find more water and food. Soon.

            The height of the ceiling of the glowing cave chamber is hard to estimate, but looks to be at least thirty feet above me, far too high for me to hope to reach the hole I’d fallen through, unless I can find some means in the cave somewhere, like a rope or enough rock to pile up to reach the ceiling. If it had not been for the soft mat of fungus, my story would likely have ended at the bottom of my fall. After a closer look at the spot just under the hole I can see I landed on a large, round outgrowth from the general mat of fungus, which is now quite smashed from my impact on it. Despite its current condition, the outgrowth resembles a puffball fungus, affectionately known in these parts as “the Devil’s snuff box.” It is a type of fungus that expels and distributes a cloud of spores when the “puffball” is kicked or stepped on, only until now the largest specimen I had ever seen before was maybe six inches in diameter and this one is more like six feet. It must have been the source of the dust cloud when I landed, and that wasn’t dust, but spores. My throat still burns a little from the initial contact, and I wonder how much of the spore cloud I have inhaled. At any rate, there is little I can do about it just now  […]

 

            […] continue to assess my surroundings as well as I can. It does make me wonder. Is it just coincidence that this puffball formed right under the hole in the cave ceiling and nowhere else in this chamber? Had other creatures besides me fallen into this hole, and the opportunistic fungus had its spore-spreading feature positioned to take advantage of such falls? I can scarcely believe much more strategy than that, such as whether there was some reason the fungus might want—if it could have the capacity or the reason to want—such a hapless creature to survive the fall as well. I can’t help thinking about a paper I wrote once in school, about a wild theory put forward by some fungus scientist, (mycologist?). He called it the “stoner monkey” theory or some such thing. I can’t quite recall. Like I said, my mind is a little fuzzy right now. Anyway, he theorized that the rapid evolution of the human brain from homo erectus to homo sapiens was due to some psychedelic mushrooms they ate that reorganized their brains the way fungal colonies will organize themselves to adapt most efficiently to a particular environment. I got an F on that paper from a professor with not much nice to say […] “pseudoscientist,” spouting some unprofessional rantings about “half-baked wives’ tales” from someone who had “clearly sampled too many psychedelic ‘shrooms himself.” I don’t know whether that mushroom scientist had fungus on the brain or not, but I really didn’t see why I had to get an F (an F!) because of it. I put a lot into that paper. Scientists can be so pissy when people disagree with them. My protest to the administration was likewise met with such disdain that I was asked not to come back. Ever. But I digress. I need to get back to practical matters, not theoretical musings.

            This chamber where I fell in is about seventy feet across at its widest point, and about a hundred feet long, and somewhat pear-shaped. In the middle of the wide end of the pear shape, there is a heightened mound, about six feet high and ten feet across. I cannot tell whether it is a thicker growth of the fungus or if the fungus has simply grown over something that rises above the cavern floor. I can also see that the brighter points of the glowing are produced by mushroom-like caps that rise from the mat of fungus on short stalks, around four to six inches in length. These mushrooms glow brighter than the rest of the fungus, possibly because they are denser, firmer, likely to give them the rigidity required to rise above the mat. These caps, I surmise, might be related to the species’ means of reproduction, for scattering spores, as the puffbox growth almost certainly was, and I wonder whether they might be edible, as many mushrooms are. I also wonder how I might test such a hypothesis, but I guess that is something I can worry about…

 

            [Here two more pages were stuck~ Asher Chase]

 

            …explored, I’ve kept a close eye on the tunnel where the fungus creature disappeared. I have seen several other tunnels that lead off into the dark, and several niches that go a short distance past the edge of the glowing carpet of fungus and stop. It was in one of these niches that I found the old ruck sack.

            It looks like army issue, but from a decade or two back. There is an embroidered name tape sewn on the flap. EVANS in block letters, faded. I’ve looked inside the pack and found nothing but […] rags, assorted animal bones, and a leather bound notebook. I opened it to find it was a journal. In fact, it is the same journal whose remaining useable pages I am writing upon now. Some of the pages are stuck together, owing, I presume, to the prolific fungus in the cave, and its accompanying dampness. I think some stuck pages could be teased apart with some delicate effort. Others are so firmly stuck that I doubt they could be separated without obliterating whatever writing is on them. The green light of the fungus is just bright enough I can make out the writing. My sole means of artificial light is a small flashlight that operates off of AA batteries. It got wet yesterday before I fell into the cave, and I do not entirely trust it to last long under constant use. In fact, I have been so long in this environment that the flashlight is too bright anyway, as it pains my eyes. Whether this is due to my eyes adjusting to the dim light of the cave or due to irritation from the spores that have gotten in my eyes, I cannot tell. Maybe it is both. At any rate, as I just now turned on the flashlight, I noticed something else. As the garish light shot out in a bright but constricted beam, it cast the shadow of the book in my hands upon the cave wall. This made me realize something I had not noticed before. In the diffuse, pale green light that came from the fungus all around, there were no shadows—could be no shadows—as there was no place not illuminated by the same glow no matter where I stood in this chamber. It made me distrust the flashlight yet again. No only could I not depend on the batteries to last; I could not see more than one side of anything it “illuminated,” the rest being obscured in shadow. I shined the light on my hand and looked at the shadow it cast on the far wall of the cave. The shadow hand was distorted, dark. I turned off the flashlight and tossed it aside. I doubt I will ever take it up again. I cannot trust it.

            After the experimentation with the flashlight, I was obliged to wait some minutes before my eyes adjusted enough to return to my perusal of the journal in the green glow of the fungus. When I could see well enough again, I flipped through pages describing hikes […] trails throughout the southeast. I looked closer when I got to the entries for the Trinity Mountains. They were dated in June, but with no year, and since it is now March, I know it has been at least nine months since the entries were written, though I suspect from the condition of the book and the ruck sack, that it has probably been years. One entry in particular caught my attention. Some parts are illegible, marked in my transcription by ellipses in brackets as my English teacher once taught me to do:

 

20 JUN: After trying for two days to find the ruins of the ghost town Scratch Hollow (or “Holler,” as they pronounce it around here […] did finally find the old cemetery […] grave of the former settlement’s founder […] Jasper Coolidge […] newest grave I could find in the old cemetery […] dated 1915. Near as I could tell, there hadn’t been a living soul […] in decades, save the one old man […] claimed to be descended from […] don’t know how the old man has subsisted out here […] told me to stay away from a rocky part of the ridge above the Sacre Coeur River, some miles up from the sandy ford, said […] Of course you know I took it as a challenge…

 

            Reading Evans’ account, I felt—I feel—a twinge of something like déjà vu. It sounds like the same old man I spoke to, giving an almost identical warning, and having the same result on the listener. The image of that drop of sweat creeping down Lester’s misshapen, discolored nose intruded on my mind again, and suddenly as I write this, I just thought of something I don’t know why I hadn’t thought before. It’s March now. The temperature when I was talking to Old Man Coolidge couldn’t have been much above sixty degrees, tops. Why on earth was the old man sweating? I don’t quite know what to think about that. Anyway, whoever this Evans fellow is, I feel a sudden kinship, and I wonder where he is, how long ago he was here. I wonder if he fell prey to the fungus creature as I nearly did, as I may yet do. I know the thing is still in here with me, and now that I think of it, I wonder if there might even be more than one of them. From somewhere in the cave, I can hear the liquid echo of water dripping into water. Maybe at least that might mean access to a water source while I search for a way out. My main worry with such exploration is that I might, once away from the glow of the fungus, lose my way in the caves in the dark or step into an unseen chasm, but […] something I will have to figure out if I am ever to get out of this fix. I have had to take frequent rest breaks during my exploration in the cave. I’m not sure if it is due to low oxygen content in the air, a possibility in this confined space, some contagion from this damnable fungus, or just the prolonged, intense stress of the situation. During breaks, I find my itching eyes gravitating toward the hole in the ceiling. It is maddening to see the way out and not be able to reach it. I have got to get out of this place. As I rest, I’m going to search the journal for more information before trying any exploration. Maybe Evans already wrote down in this journal some of the answers I need.

 

            23:16(CST) 27 MAR 03. I searched in vain for an entry in the journal that would give the year, but going backward through the entries, I did note in the February entries that it was a leap year when Evans had last written in it, because there is an entry for 29 FEB. It is now 2003, one year shy of a leap year, which means the last entry is at least three years old, or seven, or eleven, or fifteen. I have no way of telling, but the ruck sack does look like one I was issued when I first enlisted in the late 1980s, so I guess the entry can’t go much farther back in time. I did find some other entries that shed light on my situation. Such as this one:

 

21 JUN: Well, first day of summer, and it’s a memorable one. As anyone who knows me could have guessed, I did exactly what the old man said not to do […] rocky part of the trail he had described, I found something […] images carved in the stones were pretty standard stuff: an upside down man likely stood for a dead […] oval with a circle inside could be an eye, which could be an evil eye or a watchful one, a curse or a ward […] took a page from the back of the journal to take a rubbing…

 

            I flipped to the back and found […] tucked in the back cover, the folded pages Evans had ripped out to make the rubbings. They are the same as the petroglyphs I saw—upside down stick-figure man, and a crude eye glyph, a horizontal oval with a circle in the middle. I had not thought to do such a thing when I found those petroglyphs. It makes me wonder about Evans. Maybe a military background and an eye for detail like that enabled Evans to find a way out. If so, perhaps a clue lies somewhere in the stuck pages of the journal. During my first look through the journal, I already glanced through all the pages that are not stuck, so I began trying to separate some of the pages that were stuck together. After one attempt to just pull them open like yanking off a bandage, I discovered that would only obliterate the contents of both pages. I hope I have not lost anything useful. I thought maybe if I probed between the pages with something thin, I could ease them apart by degrees. I took out my pocket knife and succeeded in getting some of them apart without rendering the pages unreadable. However, some are so uniformly stuck that it would take some serious expertise to get them to part. Luckily, one of the pages where I succeeded turns out to be a hand-drawn map, which I am looking at now as I write. In the center is a shape I recognize as a reasonable rendering of this cave chamber with the glowing fungus, where I fell in. Seeing that, I know immediately what I have—a map of the entire cave complex. I can see passages to other chambers, including one with undulating lines that I hope indicate the location of water. There is also another location […] somehow important to Evans, though I am at a loss to decipher his symbology. I’ve decided to explore the caves, using the map to avoid getting lost, checking first on the water source, and next exploring the other location of apparent significance…

 

                        [Here two more pages were stuck~Asher Chase]

 

            …am still leery of venturing far down the dark side passages away from the glowing fungus without a reliable light source, but I need to get to water and to find a way out. I’m going to go into the main fungus chamber and make a closer observation of the fungus. One of the animal bones I found in the ruck sack looks like a rib bone from what I guess to be a deer or possibly a black bear, based on its size. It is slender and long enough to act as a passable tool for probing the fungus. I am feeling exceedingly sleepy, and although I’ve had an exhausting day, it’s rather early for me to feel this tired. It’s not even quite midnight. I need to stay active to remain alert in case the creature returns. Time to dig in the fungus.  I want to go home.

 

            02:14(CST) 28 MAR 03: I have made some interesting discoveries in the fungus. Digging in it intensified the earthy, peppery smell that has been faintly present ever since I fell in. The fungal growth consists of a spongy layer at least a foot thick over most of the chamber. I also discovered that this is true of the mound in the wide end of the chamber, so it isn’t a thicker growth of fungus there. There is something under the fungus. I dug the rib bone into the matted layer, and whatever was underneath seemed solid, but not quite as solid as rock. I reamed out a hole large enough for my hand to reach in.The glowing green fungus burned a little on my skin as I reached into it, but I probed further and felt something underneath that seemed squared. I used both hands to pull back the fungus mat, and I could see enough to tell what it was. It was a wooden box. There must be a whole stack of them under the fungus, but I think not nearly enough to stack up to reach the hole I fell in. The top of the box was loose, as though already pried open by someone, maybe Evans, so I reached inside to feel something cool to the touch and hard. My hand closed around something about the size of a candy bar, but much heavier. I pulled it out where I could see it. It was a rectangular metallic bar, a heavy one, stamped with the initials C.S.A. In the green light, I can’t be certain of the color, but it sure looks like gold. I have to laugh. A fortune in gold, but what use is it to me now? At least one. It has considerable heft to it, and it fits nicely in my hand. It will make a better weapon than the rock I’ve been carrying around in case that creature or more like it were to show up. The bar also fits in my pocket, so I can carry it and leave my hands free. Anyway, after a little more digging, I discovered that the bar was only one of the forms of the apparent gold in the boxes. There are also some smaller rectangular ingots, about as long as my thumb, and there are coins as well bearing the stamp of…

 

                        [Here two more pages were stuck~Asher Chase]

 

…another development that has me a bit worried. When I took a break from digging to wipe my brow, I noticed that the burning sensation I felt earlier while digging in the fungus had become a persistent itchiness, which is still itching now. It seems some part of the glowing fungus has stained my hands with spores or sap or something. I’ve tried to rub it off, but the faintly glowing residue seems to have soaked into the skin. I took out my water bottle to see if I could wash it off, careful to use as little of my limited water supply as I could to test whether I could rinse the stuff away, but it had no apparent effect. I still have to locate the water source on Evans’ map. Another thing I noticed while digging is that chunks of the fungus that have been dislodged from the mat continue to glow, and the mushroom-like caps do as well, only brighter, glowing about as bright as an army issue chem stick. I’m going to take a couple of those mushrooms and head toward the side passage the map says leads to the water. I have the gold bar in my pocket in case I need it to defend myself. Here I go.

 

            04:12(CST) 28MAR03: The map has proven accurate at least as far as the water is concerned. I brought the journal along on this exploration in case I needed to record important details of my findings. The water is two hundred or so meters down […] sloping passage from the fungus chamber, and not all of it is easy going. In some places, I was obliged to crawl, and there were numerous side passages in which I may have become hopelessly lost without the map. Someone, I can only assume Evans, also has placed a line of stones along the route to the water, likely to ease navigation without needing the map to avoid wrong turns. Some of the side passages are nothing short of death traps, with fissures that drop away into the dark. I dropped a stone the size of my fist down one of these […] sound of it crashing below in the dark […] much farther than I think I could survive if I fell into it.

            The size of the water chamber is hard to estimate since the ceiling drops low over the water about ten yards from where the water laps at the narrow ledge just at the end of the passage that leads to that chamber. The water also seems to be moving slowly from left to right as I stand on the narrow ledge. Where the water flows out of the chamber to the right, the ceiling drops right down to the water’s surface, so the only way to follow its course would be to swim underwater, a risky proposition without knowing when the next air pocket might be. The water is clear enough that I can see small white things darting about in it, likely albino cave fish or crustaceans. Perhaps those could be a food source if I can devise a way to catch them. At least my water shortage is over. In this greater volume of water, I tried once more to wash away the itching, glowing fungus residue […] refused to come off, even when I scrubbed with a handful of sand from the edge of the water. The glowing substance seems not on the surface of the skin, but saturated into it. The cool water does feel soothing on it, though. Of course I drank my fill, as all my activities left me parched, and I had until now faced the prospect of having to ration what little water I had. I am also eating one of the energy bars, as fatigue has begun to set in. It is late. I have been awake for nearly 24 hours now, with little rest. I would find a spot to lie down, but I don’t want to let my guard down with that creature still in here somewhere. I know I will have to rest eventually. Maybe if I go to the other place marked on Evans’ map, I will find more answers. First, I will sit for just a few moments. God, I am tired.

 

            18:45(CST) 28 MAR 03: I can hardly believe the events of the last several hours, day, whatever, which is saying something given what I have already seen since falling into this cave. If my wrist watch did not have a calendar, I would not have any idea what day it is by now. As I write this, I will endeavor to withhold the most incredible parts of what I have to tell until I have provided the details needed to convince anyone reading this that such things are even possible. To that end, I will try tell it as though I do not already know the outcome. The other place marked on the map did indeed answer some questions, some of which I would never have known to ask.

            After writing the last entry, I did rest a moment, and I should have known better. Though I had every intention of remaining awake, and though I did not realize it at the time, my heavy eyelids drooped closed for what I would swear was just a moment  […] thought I heard music […] song without words but made of voices, countless voices. They seemed to be trying to tell me something, something of great importance […] couldn’t quite trace the reason why I knew this, but the somehow obvious fact I stood on the verge of a great revelation was an irresistible fascination. Like a fatigued driver, nodding and driving, who gets home without remembering the drive, I opened my eyes to find that although I did not remember falling asleep, I had sleepwalked all the way back to the glowing fungus chamber, a journey not without some treacherous spots that could be hazardous even with my full concentration focused on them. It is a wonder I did not blunder down some side passage to God knows where and fall to my death.

            Apparently, I left the water chamber for the other place marked on the map, just as I planned to do after my brief rest. I just didn’t wake up to do it. I had to cross back through the fungus chamber to get there. I awoke standing in the glowing chamber directly before the entrance to the exact same passage where I had seen the fungus creature retreat after I fought it. I don’t know why I didn’t realize before when reading the map […] tunnel to the second location on the map was indeed the same one the creature used to flee. The dream of the voiceless music still lingered in my mind […] seductive pull of it still palpable but growing fainter as if it were disappearing into the dark of the passage before me, leaving me behind because I had been too slow to follow. I strained to hear the music with my waking ears, but heard only the damnable ringing in my ears that I’ve suffered since Tora Bora. For some reason, fatigue and lack of sleep always makes it worse, and as I stood there trying to listen for what I was somehow sure was an answer to my dire situation, the incessant droning of the ringing was maddening. After I don’t know how many minutes of listening and pounding the sides of my head with my fists in frustration, I resolved to press on.

            As I proceeded, I took the gold bar out of my pocket so I would be ready if attacked again. The passage was as narrow and difficult as the one to the water, and I could see that someone, likely Evans, had left a trail of marker stones on this path as well. As I approached the marked spot on the map, I began to worry that the glow of the mushroom cap I carried would be seen coming by anything that might be waiting for me. I hid the glowing fungus under my jacket, allowing only a thin beam to light the ground at my feet. After a few more yards, however, I noted that in the darker passageway, I could now detect a glow coming from up ahead. I began to tread more stealthily, and I stopped just before going around what I estimated from the map was the last bend in the passage before I would reach the marked spot. I listened, and I could just make out the rhythmic sound of what I took to be ragged, raspy breathing. As I stood there listening, I also noticed a significant warming of the atmosphere of the cave. The ragged breathing seemed to be regular and slow, and I wondered if the creature, whatever it was, were resting or sleeping, if such a creature slept at all. There was a gurgle just discernible in the breathing, but I had no idea whether that was normal for the thing or if it was injured from our fight. The sound rose and fell, rose and fell, thick, wet. I began to feel slightly nauseated and light headed. At length, fearing this feeling would only intensify the longer I waited, I decided I had to move forward. It was well after midnight on an exhausting day, and in the damp, peppery warmth of that part of the cave, I was getting drowsy again, dizzy even. If I fell asleep or passed out with the creature just around the bend in the passage, it might well be the last thing I ever did.

            I eased up the curving passage until I could just see around the bend, exposing only enough of myself to see […] small chamber, about twenty feet wide […] overgrown with the glowing fungus. In the center of the chamber was a pool of steaming water, a hot spring, about six feet in diameter. On the far side of the pool was a raised sort of platform of fungus, as if perhaps it had been piled there to a greater thickness, and atop this platform lay the creature. I shuddered involuntarily as my eyes fell on it, and I felt a cold, electric pulse across my skin as every hair stood on end.

            The creature was nearly completely camouflaged against the background of the fungus bed on which it lay since the creature’s color and texture were an exact match for the fungus of the cave, right down to the bioluminescent glow. It was lying flat on its back, its head tilted back a bit, drawing its labored breaths through its mouth, which was hanging open, slack, giving the impression it was in considerable pain. In the fleeting, frantic moments when I had seen the creature before in the haze of the spore cloud, it had been hunched over. Crouching in its combat stance and then in its wounded flight from the main chamber into the dark, it had seemed bent and somewhat simian. Now, with it lying flat on its back […] noted the length and proportions of its torso and limbs, all stretched out. I cannot adequately express the revulsion I felt looking at it as it lay there. At first, I could not place just why I felt repulsed, but then I realized it was because the proportions of its body were closer to human than to any other life form I could compare it to.

            Vomit surged to the back of my throat, but not wanting to draw the thing’s attention, I suppressed it and choked it back down with considerable effort, the acid and bile still lingering at the back of my throat along with the burning of the peppery air. I grasped the gold bar tight, steadying myself against the cave wall with the other hand as I watched for many minutes to see if the beast were truly unconscious and not just faking it to draw me in. I watched the rise and fall of its chest as it breathed in a slow steady rhythm, interrupted occasionally by sharply drawn gasps that suggested again that the thing was in great pain and that perhaps I had wounded it much more seriously than I had thought. As I waited I began to hear sounds emanating from the thing as it suffered. At first these seemed like whimpers any injured animal might make, but at length the halting, convulsing cadence of the sounds began to resemble something else, like sobbing. I tried to push that notion from my head […] grew angry, though I could not reason why […] getting harder for me to think clearly. I felt cold sweat on my brow. It was then that I not so much decided but felt compelled to move forward. Amid mixed emotions and thoughts coursing through my foggy mind, the dominant impression was the conviction that this thing, whatever it was, was an abomination, and it would have to be destroyed. Even the kindest inclinations mixed among my chaotic thoughts concluded that I should, at the very least, put this miserable thing out of its misery.

            I crept around the steaming hot spring, the gold bar held high to deliver a fatal blow at a moment’s notice. As I reached the side of the spring where it lay, but still several feet away, to my horror, like some surreal slow motion creeping dread from a fevered nightmare, its misshapen head turned slowly, slowly toward me. Another flash of cold pulsed across my skin, and I stopped where I was, even holding my breath. I could see now more clearly the eyes I had seen in only the briefest flash during our first encounter. They were not milky. They were blue. Expressive. Intelligent. And they were weeping.

            I stammered, aloud, though barely audible, “W-w-what?”

            Then its mouth began to move, the lumpy lips coming together and parting as it expelled air between them, in a “P-P-P-P” sound. I thought perhaps it was panting, as a wounded animal sometimes will pant in its pain. Then, finally, something else came out, in a faint, hoarse whisper, “P-p-p-please…”

            I stumbled back a step, nearly dropping the gold bar, and almost stepping back into the hot spring. I shook my head—angry, terrified, confused, frantic. “No, no, no, no, no…”

            It began to move its right arm, and I gripped the bar tight again holding it high, but the creature’s movement was again slow, almost feeble, as it began to fumble at the base of its neck with its fungus-matted paw. It dug into the fungal layer there, and I remember wondering—aloud or in my mind I’m not sure—My God, is it ripping out its own throat? It began to pull something out of the hole it dug in itself: a chain of tiny, tarnished metallic beads. When it was pulled free from the fungus I recognized it by sight and by the characteristic jangling sound of what dangled from the chain. It was a pair of military dog tags.

            “No,” I spat. Never, not even in that hell hole […] Tora Bora grappling with the “trusted” man I had just seen bayonet my team leader, never had I wanted more to crush the life out of anything as much as I wanted to smash in the head of this affront to nature, this misshapen thing that lay before me. “Those belong to Evans.” I hissed, pointing at the dog tags. “You must have killed him and took them.”

            The creature shook its head feebly, and began digging at the fungus on its right paw with its left paw. It cleared away about a half inch layer to reveal pink skin underneath mottled with the green glow, like the itching spots on my own hands. I could also see four fingers and an opposable thumb. I edged in closer, whether to see better or to smash the thing’s head in with the bar I could not truly have told at the time. Then I saw something glint on the third finger of the right hand. It was a ring, the block letters USMA clearly engraved on the side of it. I had seen enough of them in the army to know what it was. It was a West Point class ring. By the size and shape and style of it, I could tell something else, and I noticed for the first time the smallness and slenderness of the fingers and the contours of the body beneath its layers of fungus, contours I suppose I had dismissed as random, meaningless lumps in the fungus. It was not a man’s class ring. It was a woman’s.

            “Oh my God,” I whispered. This time I did drop the gold bar as I turned away and sank to my knees beside the bed of fungus. The wave of nausea I had suppressed earlier returned in force, and I heaved onto the cave floor. Not having eaten much in the last day, it was mostly dry heaves and bile. When I finished I looked up. It—she—was  watching me, an uncertain plaintiveness in her eyes. She was again holding the dog tags toward me. I crawled forward, still on my knees, to cradle the metal tags in my hand and view the stamped-in letters on them. I read them aloud.

EVANS,

ELEANOR V.

            She put her pink and green mottled hand on mine, and her mouth moved. “E-El-Ellie.”

            I instinctively pulled away from her hand, but I had to ask, “Ellie?”

            She nodded, smiled, and seemed to relax, or maybe she just surrendered then to her exhaustion. My own exhaustion was considerable, especially given my previous level of adrenaline now followed by the relaxing hormones that come after a fight-or-flight response when the body needs to slow itself back down. The steamy air around the hot spring was infused with the same peppery, earthy fragrance that permeated the main chamber where I fell in, but somehow amplified, possibly by the heat and humidity of the hot spring. Add to that the wild swing in mood. I had been terrified, furious. Now all I could think about is what I had done in injuring another person, a woman, and about what I had been about to do. A vision of the gold bar cleaving her skull flashed involuntarily in my mind, and I was almost sick again.

            “Ellie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

            She smiled, and took my hand with her right hand, the one she had scraped free of fungus. I had the same impulse as before to pull away, but something stopped me, and I did not. Her hand was soft, and she gripped mine most warmly.

            “Wh-who..?” She said in a barely audible whisper.

            “I’m Newman’” I said, hauling out my own dog tags from inside my shirt. “Newman Adams.”

            She smiled and gripped my hand even tighter. I wondered how long it had been since she last held another person’s hand, seen another person’s face. She was looking at me as though I were […] I tried to smile, and I was annoyed with myself for not doing a very good job of it. To whomever is reading this—if anyone ever reads this—try to understand; by this time I could accept this was somehow someone named Ellie Evans, but she still looked like an alien creature made of fungus, but with human eyes, a human hand, and a human ability to whisper words. “Ellie,” I asked, “Are you hurt bad?”

            She nodded and indicated with her left hand the side where I had hit her with the rock. I had not noticed before, but the fungus of the bed on which she lay appeared to have grown up over to cover and fuse itself with the fungus on her side in that spot.

            I looked back at her eyes. “Is that…” I paused, trying to frame the notion in my own mind, foggy as it was. “Is that healing you?”

            She nodded.

            I blinked, slowly, deliberately, my eyelids seeming to grate across my eyes. It had been so long since I had last slept a full night. “Will you be okay?” I asked her at length.

            She nodded and smiled a little. Her mouth moved again. “I-I-I’ve…h-had…w-w-worse,” she whispered.

            I did smile at that. Then I thought for a moment. “You were just worried about whether I was going to come…” I paused as I thought about what I was about to say, “…finish the job.”

            She looked down and nodded.

            “Why did you attack me when I fell in the cave?” I asked.

            She frowned. “N-not attack. S-s-so h-h-happy to…” she paused to fight for breath, “s-s-see anyone.” Then after a moment she looked back at me. “S-s-sorry.”

            I smiled again and shrugged. The situation was surreal, like something that would make sense only in the bizarre logic of a dream, but my natural inclination was to try to defuse the tension with humor. “Well, people usually aren’t that glad to see me.”

            She even managed a little laugh at that, wincing a little from the pain in her side.

            “Can I do anything to help?” I asked.

            “W-w-water?” She said.

            “Oh, yeah, sure. I’ve got some right here.” I said, pulling my water bottle from my coat pocket. I let go of her hand to open the bottle, and I held it to her mouth. I felt a momentary revulsion watching her fungus-covered lips touch the mouth of the bottle I drink from, but I kept it to myself. She lifted her head as best she could and drank. When she sputtered a little, I pulled the bottle back. I waited while she swallowed what she had in her mouth. “More?” I asked.

            She shook her head and said, “C-c-cup.” Then she looked up and behind her at a small niche in the cave wall near her bed […] hadn’t noticed it before, but there was indeed a small tin camping cup there.

            “Oh, you want to drink from the cup?”

            She looked over toward the spring. “H-hot…w-w-water.”

            “Okay, sure.” I said rising and getting the cup. Also in the niche I noticed a few other articles: a compass, a small mirror, a toothbrush, and a tortoiseshell comb. Tangled in the comb were just enough long strands of hair to tell what color they were—a red-gold, like clover honey. As I was on a mission at the time to retrieve the cup, I didn’t’ really dwell much on it, but I had a momentary feeling of familiarity regarding the comb and the hair. I took the cup and dipped some water from the spring, which was a bit hotter than I anticipated, but not so much as to scald. I took it back to Ellie. “Here you go.”

            She took the cup in her right hand, and with the other hand picked bits of the fungus off her own arms and torso and […] dropped the bits of fungus into the hot water. She stirred the hot water in the cup with her finger, slowly, deliberately. I watched with a nameless fascination as her finger swirled around and around the cup as the fungus from her own […] and steaming water combined by degrees into greenish, glowing tea.Then she drank the fungus tea down and handed the cup back to me, her eyelids looking heavy. “Th-thank…y-y-you.”

            I smiled and stood to return the cup to its shelf. I had a bit of a head rush, feeling even more dizzy for a moment. I dismissed it as due to my lack of sleep. After depositing the cup in the niche, I sat back down on the cave floor beside the bed of fungus, and feeling an impulse I can’t quite explain, I took her hand again, though it had repulsed me just a few minutes before. She squeezed my hand in response, and as I watched, she fell asleep. I stayed beside the bed, holding her hand, leaning against the soft pile of fungus. There was a mild burning sensation where our palms touched, but I was too tired to worry about it. In the warm, damp, peppery, earthy air next to the hot spring, My head drooped to rest on the soft fungus, and I was soon asleep as well.

            I awoke still leaning against the side of the fungus bed, still holding her hand. I wish I could say it was restful, but the sleep seemed only to fatigue me further. I awoke feeling like I had just run a marathon. Maybe it was the steamy heat. Maybe it was a side effect of the fungus. Maybe the dream was to blame. I often recall dreams only vaguely, as misty impressions and snippets of random images. This dream I doubt I will ever forget. I dreamed I was floating weightless in the dark, with no light, not even a sensation of gravity. Then, in a violent fraction of a second, I was slammed, my back pinned against a hard surface. Was it a wall or a floor or even a ceiling? I couldn’t tell because I had no sensation of up or down. As though the shock had turned it on, there was suddenly a dull green light around me, but only close in. Outside the small dim green glow, blackest darkness stretched away, who knows how far? Next a horde of tiny creatures, like ants or mites, swarmed over me, biting, stinging. I tried to move to brush them away, but I remained pinned, unable to move even a finger. The millions of tiny bites coalesced into an intense itch, a burning itch. I strained every muscle to try to break free from whatever force held me immobile, but I made no progress. I could not even scream. There were so many of them crawling over me and biting that I was completely covered. Then a new realization washed over me. They weren’t just biting me. They were eating me, consuming me, burrowing deep in my skins as they fed, pouring in through my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, even […] smothering me and devouring me. No air. No me.

            As my eyes opened, I screamed out loud and gasped for breath as though coming up from a long time under water. Ellie was stroking my hair with her other hand, from which she had also stripped the fungus off sometime while I slept. When she saw I was awake, she stopped what she was doing, as though wondering if she should have sought permission to do such a thing, or perhaps she thought she had injured me because I had cried out. The transition from the terrifying dream to the reality around me was complicated by the bizarre nature of that reality. I wasn’t in my room at home. I wasn’t even in my tent by the lake. I was still in a fungus-filled cave, next to a fungus-covered woman, in a dim-green-glowing, peppery-smelling sauna. One thing did remain from the dream—the itching. When I had recovered enough, I gave her a sleepy smile to tell her it was okay, scratching absently at the itch. I was still feeling groggy, as though still half in a dream.

            She still seemed to feel a need to explain her fascination with my hair. “So long since…seen hair.”

            It made sense. Likely the fungus had made her lose every strand of hair she had. I remembered the tortoiseshell comb she still kept and the few strands of auburn hair still tangled in its teeth. Something still nagged at me about the glimpse of that comb I had gotten while retrieving the cup. Slowly I recalled the shape of it […] just like the one that girlfriend of mine in […] once had—no not girlfriend. I never attained the right to call her that. I can still see it on her dresser, a shaft of sunlight through the blinds illuminating the translucent tortoiseshell and the red-gold hair tangled in it, the same color as the hair in Ellie’s comb, the exact same color, and I was just starting to wonder how I could even see the reddish color in the green […] out of nowhere I also recalled, in a flashback I wished I could take back, that young kid at […] got ringworm on his scalp. We couldn’t evac him right away without compromising the mission, so there wasn’t much we could do to stop the spread. In the affected areas, his hair fell out in oozy clumps from the weepy, crusty skin. A shudder of revulsion shook me, and I shook my head to dislodge the image from my mind. Wanting to change the subject I asked, “Feeling better?”

            She nodded. She smiled as she touched her side where the injury was, as if to show it was well on its way to being healed.

            “Wow, that stuff works fast, doesn’t it.?”

            She nodded and smiled again. “Yes.” Her breathing was more regular now, so she didn’t seem to struggle for breath, but she still spoke in broken language. “You…were…dreaming?” I noticed, now that her words were more than a whisper that there was an odd buzz at the back of her voice. I thought maybe it was just my own ears ringing.

            I described my dream to her, much as I wrote it down in the journal above. She nodded, and now it was she who seemed to want to change the subject.

             “I thought…” she said finally, trailing off. She appeared to be searching for words. “I thought…I dreamed you.”

            “Well,” I began, “you must not be very good at it if I was the best you could do.”

            She laughed a little, but then a seriousness returned. “So long…alone,” she whispered.

            “How long?” I asked, still fumbling at the itch with fingers that seemed fat and numb.

            “What…year?” She asked.

            “Now?” I replied, wondering briefly what it would be like to lose track of not just days, but years. “It’s 2003.”

            She looked away for a moment as the shock of that news hit her. “Eleven years.”

            I tried to imagine eleven years in solitary confinement. No, not just that. Even prisoners in solitary confinement see their guards, know that there are people outside who know where they are. “Oh, Ellie, I am sorry.”

            She looked back at me, and the look in her eyes spoke more than her own sorrow. “Me…too,” she said, as though consoling me and not herself.

            Then I understood what she meant. Eleven years, and she had never found a way out. And then I saw what else she meant too. The weight of it seemed beyond even trying to bear as it broke over me. I touched the fungus coating her arms above where she had stripped it off her hands. “This is going to happen to me too, isn’t it?”

            She nodded. I nodded too, not knowing what else to add as I considered the prospect of the fungus slowly taking me. Soon she was asleep again. I touched my own hair, thinking of Ellie’s comb.…

 

            [Here another two pages were stuck together~ Asher Chase]

 

            …guess the healing process is taking a lot out of her. I have used much of the time she has slept to record these things in this journal, but now my head seems a bit cloudy, stuffed full of cotton. I feel—I don’t know—like there’s something that I’m supposed to do or that I forgot to do… I can’t quite place it, but it’s starting to nag at me, like the start of a craving except I can’t remember what it is that I’m hungry for. Right now, I think I need to stop thinking about it and stretch my legs. I think I will go down and refill my water bottle with cool water from the stream. I can see if the cool water will ease this damnable itch. Perhaps that’s what I was thinking I forgot. Ellie has a large canteen, one of those big round ones like in cowboy movies. I will fill it too. Maybe I can clear my head in the process.

 

            23:29 (CDT) 01 APR 03: It’s been several days since my last entry. Halfway back from my trip to the stream, the passage started to feel like it was absolutely freezing. Away from the hot spring, the cave is never really warm, but it isn’t very cold either. Kind of a constant mid-50s, I’d estimate. I began to feel increasingly light headed and then downright dizzy, and then I felt that the whole cave was spinning like a carnival ride […] stumbling […] everything went black.

            The very next thing I knew, as if no time had passed at all, I was back in the hot spring chamber, lying on the bed of fungus where Ellie had been before. I felt so weak I could hardly lift my head. I was still light headed, perhaps a bit delirious, and my vision was somewhat, I don’t know, off, though I couldn’t figure out just what was off about it, like it was […] I looked around as best I could while moving my head as little as possible. Everything looked brighter, even the passage that led away from the chamber into the dark. I could see down it all the way to where the passage turned, as clear as I could see in the fungus-lit chamber. Then, as I was about to start thinking about how that were possible, I saw Ellie, kneeling beside the hot spring with her back to me.

            “Ellie?” I croaked, my voice sounding cracked, and I thought I heard now in my own hoarse voice the same buzz at the back of it as I had heard in Ellie’s before.

            She heard me and rose, turning as she came back to the edge of the bed. I gasped sharply. Her face. She had stripped off the fungus on her face and neck, much as she had cleared it off her hands before. The same glowing green mottled her complexion, just as it had on her hands and mine, but otherwise the skin appeared smooth and soft and normal.

            “Ellie…”

            She sat on the edge of the fungus bed where I lay, and my staring must have made her self-conscious because she turned her face down and to her left. Still, she glanced sidelong at me, smiling a little on one side tentatively, dimpling her smooth cheek on that side of her face.

            “Ellie,” I said again, reaching up to put my hand on her chin to turn her face back toward me. I kept my fingers there a moment, touching her soft , smooth cheek, admiring the brighter green speckles. “Do you have…are those—freckles?”

            She nodded, her blue eyes still seeming uncertain, searching […]

            “I like freckles.” I said dreamily. I felt, I don’t know, almost drunk, as I reminisced over misty images of the freckles on the first girl I ever had a crush on, and now that I think about it more, the dimples, weren’t they just like the girl on that one TV show—God what was that actress’ name? I had pinned up pictures of her I had torn out of my sister’s glossy teen magazines when I was just a kid. Geez, my sis got mad about that. Why can’t I remember her name?

            Anyway, Ellie’s smile spread a little more as I commented on her freckles, and she brought up her hands, which I could now see held the tin cup.

            “Tea,” she whispered, offering the cup to me.

            I took the cup and held it under my nose. The steam had a slightly sharp tang, but not unpleasant. “Is this…?”

            She nodded, indicating the fungus on her arm […] her body.

            “Will it make me better?” I asked, gazing into this warm cup of […] in my hands.

            She nodded […] smiled […] those lovely […] lovely […] dimples.

            I took a tentative sip. It tasted like a miso soup, but somehow […] warmth burned a little on the way down, like a sip of brandy. “What happened?” I asked her.

            “I woke up…you…gone. I looked…brought you…back.”

            “But what..?”

            “Fever.” She whispered, stroking my hair. “It will…pass.”

            I understood. “From the fungus entering my system.”

            She nodded.

            “I’m scared, Ellie.” I whispered.

            She pouted a little, out of empathy, I thought […] her lips, which had repulsed me when crusted with misshapen lumps of fungus, now had a plump fullness, a graceful curve that was familiar though I couldn’t say just why, though it felt like I knew just a few moments ago. Then it just didn’t matter anymore. The craving I had felt before returned, but I knew this time what it was I wanted. I put my hand up to her cheek again, and she tilted her head into the caress. My hand moved to the back of her neck, and I pulled her toward me. She seemed unsure at first, but only for a moment. Then she leaned in, and pressed her soft lips against mine. I felt the burning again, a tingling where our lips touched […] her mouth, her breath, intoxicated me like a spiced mulled wine […] faded again into unconsciousness.

            In that dark, I dreamed again. Out of the darkness a green glow hovered, formless, like the foxfire that had led me from the trail to the cave. I got the distinct impression it wanted to communicate something to me—something important. It did not speak, not in words, but I understood it wanted to show me something. Then it was as though it had pushed something into […] was like a memory, but not the past […] played like a movie scene where I was inside the scene. I saw an image of red and orange fire in the sky, all over the mountainsides […] rolling plains, everywhere, fire. I could feel the heat of it. And then, all was charred, everything covered in drifts of ash that fell from a thick, gray sky, blotting out the sun. Green leafy things that needed sunlight across the surface of the earth withered. Died. All leaves, all blades of grass, all needles on conifers, all gone. All creatures up there that relied on photosynthesis to feed their food chain up above, all died as well, the last of them digging vainly in scalding ash for one more mouthful to eat, scorched, choking, starving. Ash clogged the gills of fish in the surface waters, waters grown thick and gray. Gray death washed over the air, land, and sea. Then the scene changed again, and we were underground. The green glow of the bioluminescent fungus lit a scene of thriving fungi in vast caverns. Then I saw Ellie and me, our skin clothed in the life-giving fungus, and then throughout the cavern, there were more beings just like us, hundreds, thousands, alive and thriving when all the world above was dead or dying.

            When I awoke, Ellie was bathing in the hot spring, humming a song I couldn’t place. It lilted in the heady, steamy, spicy air. I hummed in harmony, able to follow the tune though I could not name it […] weaving my hum with hers into one song that seemed in harmony with something outside our […] She turned to me and smiled. Still humming, and I with her, she rose from the spring, slick and clean of the fungus from head to toe, steam rising in twisting wisps from her smooth, naked body, which I can only describe as proportioned in all the ways I find most attractive—legs, hips, waist, breasts, shoulders, neck, and that lovely freckled, dimpled face—all were just as I’d have requested if she were created to order, just for me. It was as though a statue of Aphrodite, carved in polished pink and green marble, had come to life to saunter toward me—toward me—an unclean mortal. As she walked, the light and dark dappling of her skin seemed to shift like the patterns of moonlight and shadow do on a forest floor under a full moon, with the lightest breeze stirring the leaves—except of course, that instead of silvery moonlight, the shifting light that moved upon her smooth, soft skin was green.

 

            16;45 (CST) 31 OCT 2003: In these months, Ellie and I—we— have grown closer in ways that would not have been possible or even conceivable if our former selves had met above ground. You, who have known only the horrifying loneliness of your separate ego, cannot—we are well aware—imagine what we mean, but you will feel it soon enough. We are one, and one with the life-giving Voice that speaks out of the dark without speaking. Ellie and I—we— speak to each other now in a modulating hum. I think now, what seemed like Ellie whispering and buzzing to me before was always this, but I had not the ear to hear. The ringing in my ears is now in tune with the hum—oh how did it find me before I ever found this place? Why didn’t I know it for what it was? The maddening tones that plagued me all those years were the song of all life all along.

            Ellie has grown large with our children, her belly swelling far beyond the size of any pregnant woman ever seen in the world above. Ellie says children, not child, and they are in the millions. She says they all hum along when we two hum together now, entwining our former separate selves ever more deeply, down to the most fundamental building blocks of our being. Lately, I can hear it too, a chorus of tiny voices, like a hive of honeybees, but all in tune. The Voice that spoke to me out of the dark without speaking still speaks, even when I am awake now. The Voice has guided Ellie and me. We have sprinkled its life-giving fungus into the underground stream, sending the spores outward into the vast underground places of the earth. When Ellie reaches full term, there will be a few more things left to do, such as […] the time grows nearer.

            Final Entry: I do not know the day or time. I cast my wristwatch into the underground stream some time ago, time that I cannot now measure, nor would I wish to do so. The watch is water resistant. For all I know it still functions beneath the blind pink eyes of the white cave fish in the stream, but such concerns have no more meaning for me now than for those blind fish.  I cast away the watch just after Ellie gave birth to our countless children. As she neared term, the skin about her abdomen, which had grown many times its former girth, had grown dry, brittle, until finally it began to crack open. Both Ellie and the Voice bade me carry her to the stream, and there on the edge of that underground river the cloud of spores burst forth, each spore one of our children, glowing together like a brilliant nebula in the dark. The cloud spread out, some spores settling on the water to drift to other destinies. Other tendrils snaked through these caverns, settling back on me, on all the surfaces around me. When it was over, what remained of Ellie’s body was a husk, but she still smiled at me. She must have known this would be the day, for she had cleared her face again, so I could see her freckles. I wish I had cleared mine for her, but she did not seem to mind it. Her hum asked me to carry her back to the hot spring, to our bed, where I held her as she melded with the bed of fungus, a part of it now.

            I felt a pang, a loneliness I had not felt since before she had risen naked from the hot spring those many months ago. But then, the Voice called out to me. Everywhere that the spores of our children had fallen on me, I could feel the tingling I felt with Ellie, and I knew she was still with me. I could feel myself, my whole being begin to hum with thousands of tiny voices, and I knew, though such a thing would never have been possible before my merging with Ellie, that soon my belly would grow as hers had grown, and so, in due time, it has come to pass. The drying out of the thin skin over the humming multitude inside me is nearly complete. Cracks begin to form. I hear all of my children, but I hear Ellie’s humming voice among them as well, and I know my voice will live on millions of times over in that chorus for all time. This manuscript, when I finish this last entry, I will place into Ellie’s large, round canteen. The Voice has told me, and I believe Her, that if I put some weight in the canteen along with the manuscript, it will float, not on the top of the water, but below the surface yet above the riverbed. This will help it travel without catching on the roof or floor of the caves through which the water flows. She says (for the voiceless Voice is a She, I am quite sure of it), She says it will reach the place where this underground river gushes from the side of a shady mountain into the surface rivers.

            I had an idea too. For the weight in the canteen, the ballast to achieve the neutral buoyancy She described, I could not use water, or it would ruin this manuscript. No, instead, I would use some of the gold coins, for what else are they good for now? I think the Voice is pleased. She knows others will come now, from far and wide, and take the gold that ironically came from the work of an enslaved people, and carry it forth to liberate doomed humanity from its fatal future in the Apocalypse to come. It is all very natural, you see. Like honeybees, these treasure seekers will come for the gold, and leave with our spores on them to pollinate the world with our young, not intentionally, but incidental to their self interest, and in doing so, they will unwittingly ensure the survival of our kind. To that end, I also put some of my fungus in the canteen, including some of the first wisps of the spore cloud that leaks now through the cracks in my brittle belly skin. I must finish this message now and complete my tasks before the birth. Look at your hands, you who read this now. Do not despair. Find your way to the underground. You will know where, now that She is in you. Look for the foxfire. Its light will guide you, and you will be among the fortunate ones with us when all the surface burns.                   

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\END OF TRANSCRIPT////////////////////////////////////////////////////

           

Analysis: The Foxfire Document was visible online on The Watcher’s Thread blog for 8 weeks prior to extraction. Even after the blog was taken down, the document and commentary related to it proliferated and continues to proliferate online through a wide variety of conspiracy theory and dark web sites. This, coupled with the difficulty of maintaining a seamless perimeter in such a rugged and remote location may account for our difficulty isolating the site of the anomaly from intrusion even after martial law was declared in response to the burgeoning epidemic. The number of individuals seeking the cave site to retrieve the “Confederate gold” prior to our detection of the threat and our isolation of the site is unknown, but it is assumed to be at least in the dozens or more, possibly much more, from far distributed home locations, some in other countries, other continents, to which the fortune hunters likely returned after possible contact with the contagion. In the restricted zone set up around the Trinity Mountains site, a cave matching the description in “The Foxfire Document” has been found and remains under investigation. Thus far, many of the details from the document, including the presence of petroglyphs, bioluminescent fungus, an underground stream, and a hot spring, match descriptions in document. Investigators also found the remains of numerous wooden boxes or crates, some marked with the initials CSA, though authentication of these artifacts is still pending, and no gold was found on the site. Some camping gear, including a 1980s to 90s vintage army ruck sack was also found, but no living creatures, other than the bioluminescent fungus itself and a few blind cave fish. This fact has led researchers to question whether the most shocking parts of “The Foxfire Document“ were merely part of a hoax designed to make the story go viral online. This suspicion is borne up by the inaccuracy of the description of Scratch Hollow in the document.

            The ruins of a late 19th, early 20th century settlement were indeed found, along with the mentioned graveyard. However, no sign of any standing structure remains. Only a few crumbling foundations for former dwellings are still there, covered in layers of leaves and undergrowth that are estimated to be decades old. On the headstones in the cemetery, researchers did indeed find a stone with the name Jasper Coolidge, and they also found the latest legible date on any headstone there was 1915, as purportedly described by Evans in her original journal. Using imaging technology likely not available to the persons named in the document, the faint trace of a name almost completely eroded away was found on that same grave marker: Lester Coolidge.

            The alleged writer of the document remains a mystery, and no record of a 1980s or 90s missing person case involving anyone named Eleanor V. Evans, West Point graduate or otherwise, has been found to date. There is ongoing debate among investigators whether the entire document is a fabrication deliberately aligned with just enough facts from the cave to foster a conspiracy theory, whether it is the product of a deluded or mentally impaired individual, or as unlikely as it seems, whether there is actual merit to the most sensational details in the document. Those most vocally in support of the third possibility cite the similarity of symptoms described in “The Foxfire Document” to the symptoms of the current fungal epidemic as being too precise to be coincidental, and that foreknowledge of the symptoms would have to have preceded the onset of the epidemic in order for the document to have pre-existed it at all.

            Extensive analysis of the underground stream in the cave and its interaction with the aquifer indicate that besides numerous local residential water wells, the Sacre Coeur River itself and a natural spring that serves as the source for several nationally-distributed brands of bottled water may have been compromised by fungal spores from the cave, though it is not known if sufficient concentration of the contamination occurred to pass on the contagion to consumers. The wells, the river, and the spring have since been quarantined, and bottled water from the contaminated spring has been recalled. Test results are pending. However, since the duration of the period of potential contamination is unknown, we cannot currently calculate or even accurately estimate the full extent of exposure to the fungal spores, nor can we assume the exposure is contained. If these spores are indeed the source of the epidemic, we have no way of knowing at this time how far they have spread.

            In the early stages of the investigation at the site, many researchers began to believe with an almost fanatical certainty, as incredible as it sounds, that there was a conscious will, a method, an intelligent design behind the spread of the fungal infestation. The official stance on these illogical protests is that they should be dismissed as paranoia incited by the bizarre details of the situation on scene and exacerbated by viral conspiracy theories. In addition, during initial occupation of the site, coalition personnel complained of visual disturbances and persistent tinnitus that may have influenced initial analysis, but these symptoms gradually subsided and onsite personnel now insist everything is normal. In fact, as of this date, numerous analysts working at the site have begun to question rather dismissively whether this cave is even in any way related to the ongoing fungal epidemic at all, reassuring this headquarters that there is nothing to fear there, and there is growing agreement among onsite analysts that it would be for the best to let the phenomenon at this location run its natural course unimpeded.

Spaceship X Has Seconds to Live

 

by David Fawkes

The ship was crashing, and there was nothing Winchester could do to stop it. The spaceship into which his body had been incorporated for weeks had started to reject him, eliminating him like a disease, reducing his neural relays to a smell like burning hair and ozone. He and his ship fell toward planet Wurlitzurnia, which filled his scanner views over the golden crust of the ship’s hull.

All his dreams of falling as a child had led to his becoming a pilot, and none could compare to this moment of silent awe and terror as the tickle of gravity slowly tightened into a fist.

Winchester opened his living eye, glanced at the bridge, and winced from the smoke. He forced himself to see what sensors could no longer tell him. He saw many of his other body parts flopping helplessly as they attempted to control a ship that would no longer respond.

He turned on his ears to the sound of someone screaming and realized it was him. He stopped, but the panic and din of the dying bio-ship X remained. Its own creaks and groans matched Winchester’s screams. Then, he noticed a new sound. It almost escaped his attention, not being as important as a crashing spaceship. The neu-wave transmitter began buzzing. Why would the ship send a signal through time? thought Winchester.

Winchester’s cybernetic eye came online, which surprised him since he didn’t ask it to. The dead static noise from the device resolved into the same chaotic view of the bridge he saw with his living eye, but with an addition this eye couldn’t see: On the bridge stood a radiant figure. A woman in silver chainmail with white hair and wings glowed as though light were a halo or a crown. She stepped forward to the panel where Winchester’s eyes were housed.

“Winchester,” she said, “the buzzbomb virus is heading for the past. We must follow. Will you go with me?”

Winchester stared at the destruction around him and thought of his dying ship. “Yes,” he said over a crackly speaker somewhere.

She lay an angelic hand on his control panel, and all went black.

                             #

Winchester Stranglehold awoke so violently he tore the upper half of his body from its charging unit. The dream, if it had been one, seemed so real to him, and the imagined odor of ozone still seemed to tingle in his nostrils.

He rubbed his living eye and brought his cybernetic one online. He ignored much of its unnecessary spectral data and tried to limit himself to the visible beauty of his home.

He hadn’t been back long from test runs in space, and he was trying to reorient himself to what he remembered of home. The bronze sunlight of early morning on Wurlitzurnia crept lazily through the enormous porthole windows of the bedroom. The bed rose and fell, like a palm tree swaying in the breeze, which meant he’d have to repair its hoverpanel later.

His wife, Dala, kept a clean home, and a flock of tiny tidy-bots grazed along the carpet or circled the ceiling, hunting for grime. Dala programmed them herself; Winchester had no gift for such things, and he admired their dance as he labored to lift himself from the bed. As he sat up, struts creaked and servos struggled to align and balance his mechanized, cybernetic upper body. It wasn’t easy being top-heavy, but nothing about being a motor-head was easy.

The scent of coffee coming from the kitchen revived him faster than any alarm could. He rose, strapped on his uniform in seconds, and hurried to the source of breakfast.

The morning sun began to thin to pink as he stumbled through apartment corridors. Vids and pixelated phantoms of his family morphed and followed him along the hallway picture panel. In-laws and cousins he seldom saw waved while parents frowned or shrugged. Winchester passed the images by. His wife and fresh coffee awaited.

“I didn’t hear you get up,” Winchester said.

“You never do.” Dala smiled and poured him a mugful. She wore a gown of woven optic fibers. Pulses of light criss-crossed the weave. Winchester knew the pulse pattern signaled to other men that she was unavailable. He hadn’t asked her to make this display; she did it on her own. That meant more to him than any ring on a finger could. From the collar of her gown protruded a net of signal amplifiers, and she had shaved her head to allow better contact. LEDs flashed around her head as she received data from the web. Winchester thought she looked like quiet sunlight.

Steam rose from the mug as Dala handed it to him. The first taste was always the best, and the coffee tasted better than it smelled.

Winchester stumbled and winced as a servo over-corrected his posture.

“Oh, sweetie,” said Dala, taking his mug before he spilled it. “You’re not awake yet, are you?”

“No, I’ve been feeling funny. Bad dreams.”

“Do you need a little prop time while you tell me about them?”

“Yes!” he answered. “We haven’t done that since the last time I was planet-side.”

“Leave it to me. I’m a master.” Dala helped lower Winchester to a seated position on the kitchen floor, handed his mug back, and then she sat behind him so they were back to back. He let Dala take some of the weight of his upper body as she propped him up from behind. This prop-time ritual dated back to their early days of dating.

He couldn’t feel her, but he knew every inch of her shoulders and imagined them pressed against his. He sipped at his early-morning reason for being.

“Now, tell me all about the bad dreams,” said Dala.

Winchester couldn’t see her. The hood formed by the motor-head augmentations that covered his head and shoulders prevented him from turning, but he heard her beautiful voice.

He began to describe his dream. “I think it was a dream. There was a feeling like the one I get when I download data, but it didn’t feel like a dream until I woke up.”

“A bad one?”

“Yes,” said Winchester. “I don’t remember much, but I was flying and crashing.”

Dala shifted her weight behind him. “Now you’re going to give me nightmares.”

“Sorry,” he said. “And you thought you were going to get away with just giving me breakfast.”

She reached a hand back and patted Winchester’s hood.

“Oh, no,” said another voice from the kitchen entrance. “Are you two getting . . . affectionate?”

“Not on the kitchen floor,” answered Dala. “Well, not while you’re still living with us, Varna.”

Winchester repositioned so he could see Varna, his sondaughter. “Have I been gone that long? You’re a girl again?” Her short, dark hair had grown a little, and her legs were definitely longer, or was her dress shorter? She’d be a woman soon. When she wasn’t a man.

“Yes, I am. Not that you’re ever around to know.” Varna disappeared down the hall.

Winchester sighed. “What happened? I remember when Varn — I mean Varna — would greet me in the landing bay every time I came home.” He wished he could shrug. “I just wanted some coffee.”

Dala rose and took his mug. Then, she helped him up. “Go say something to her. She misses you.”

“I always say the wrong thing.”

“You’re her father, and she’s a teenager. You’re never going to say the right thing.”

Winchester wondered why teenaged sondaughters couldn’t be more like spaceships.

When Winchester arrived at Varna’s room, the door was rolled partway into its pocket. He entered. Varna sat on her balcony with one of her model rockets. A dozen mini-comp screens filled a corner of her room. Each showed video footage being taken right then by the hordes of other rockets she had let loose on the unsuspecting city. Her “fleet” would return for fuel or repairs, but mostly they just wandered the skies collecting random footage. Winchester had introduced Varna to rocketry. But she had been a boy then. And a girl, and a boy, who knew how many times since. Winchester had tried keeping track at first but was gone too often to know.

“Preparing another launch?” he asked.

“Yes. Gonna tell me not to?” She didn’t look up from her tinkering.

“Of course not. Your rockets are brilliant. Far beyond anything I showed you how to make.”

“Gonna tell me not to be a girl?”

“I never said that.” Winchester sighed. Varna referred to a very old conversation between them. “I love who you are. I said the motor-heads would not accept a cyclosexual.” Winchester knew this was the point when he would say the wrong thing.

Varna threw bits of rocket across the floor. The rocket uttered a tinny whimper.

“You want me to be just a son or a daughter; well, I can’t control the change. This is how I am,” said Varna.

“That’s not what I want,” said Winchester, picking up larger pieces of rocket. “The motor-heads are very strict. They barely took me, and everyone else on this planet is so twitchy about any kind of differences.”

“I’ve seen the way you look at me whenever you come home. Afraid you’ll forget whether I was a boy or a girl the last time you saw me. You’re twitchy, too.”

“I didn’t want you to join the motor-heads!” He carefully set down the model rocket parts. “I know you want to be a pilot, but I didn’t want you to have to go through what I do. You don’t know what it’s like.”

“You think I don’t know about alienation? Get out.” Varna pointed to the doorway.

Winchester was no good with teenagers.

He returned to his wife in the kitchen and picked up his coffee. It was cold. “I think I’m going to go see my psycho-bot.”

                             #

Winchester rode alone in a skytram car. He was used to sitting with no one next to him in his aisle, section, or row; but today, he bounced along as the tram flew over the city with no neighbors in his car. Whenever the tram landed at a station, people would start to enter as the doors rolled open, but then they would backpedal and head for the other cars. He only heard the muffled roar of the tram rockets and the hubbub of passengers from the nearby cars.

The people of Wurlitzurnia couldn’t decorate themselves, so they decorated Wurlitzurnia. The skytram flew over curved and rounded buildings decorated with neon, chrome, and cobwebs of stained glass. Colored lights danced across every compulsively polished reflective surface. There were no laws on the planet forbidding bodily ornamentation or mutilation because no citizen would consider such atrocities. Except motor-heads. They accepted the permanent alterations that made them monsters on their own planet.

Winchester listened to the rain starting to tap across the tram hull. Water spots and rivulets distorted the colors of the city so they ran into an electric blur.

He had wanted to be a motor-head ever since childhood, younger than Varna had been. Winchester was a good pilot. On Wurlitzurnia, that meant he flew the bio-ships and tugs that required the merging of motor-head with organic machine. Though they performed the most important job on the planet, piloting the ships that were the life-line of an isolated world, motor-heads were despised as mechanized, cybernetic freaks by the people for whom they worked.

He dozed for a moment. As his eyelid started to droop and before his cybernetic eye drifted into standby, he saw something flying alongside the tram car. He thought it was a glitch since he saw it only out of the mechanical eye. When he turned to see the object, it disappeared into the sparse clouds. It had looked like a woman in silver chainmail.

Winchester’s comm-snake hissed. The communication device couldn’t circle his neck as on most people. He didn’t have a neck, so the silver serpent nestled in a battery hutch in his shoulder. Winchester answered its hooded head.

On the hood’s viewscreen, Winchester saw a form much like his own, or at least as he imagined himself to be. His boss tried to smile, producing a lined face that sagged beneath its mechanized eye.

“Stranglehold,” said his boss. “I need you to report into motor-headquarters.”

“But I’m on leave. I just saw my family for the first time this morning.”

“Stow it. I only need an hour of your precious quality time; an’ I’ll tack it back onto the end of your leave, but you’re coming in. I’m sorry, Winchester. It’s my day off, too. My office. One hour.” The comm-snake rang off and re-curled into a ball.

If Winchester got off at the next station and transferred to the Wishbone line, he’d make it.

As Winchester arrived at motor-headquarters, he circled the towering statue of Clock Vortex, the Patron Saint of Rockets, which stood before the building like a guard. He had been the first motor-head to enter crawl space and return. Only before the entrance to headquarters was the saint shown as he actually had been: more machine than human. All other versions on Wurlitzurnia depicted him before his great conversion, making him look as human and ordinary as possible.

On entering the lobby, Winchester stepped into the suspension field of the lift and allowed his body to drift upward. Aside from prop time with Dala, this was the only relief he ever felt from the great weight of his upper body.

He caught the hook extending from his boss’s office level and pulled himself from the lift back into the normal gravity of the hallway. He wished he could linger in the weightlessness of the lift, but the hours of his leave flew by. He steadied his footing and proceeded to his boss’s office.

His boss, Modom Rooth, had started in the ranks, and his motorized upper body no longer interfaced with any ships, but he kept his augmentations as a badge of experience. As Winchester entered the office, he saw the older man stooped over his station. Rooth withdrew some of his interfaces from his panels and addressed Winchester.

“I know, I know,” said Rooth. “I could be fishing right now, so I ‘preciate your coming in. Not going to jerk you around; you get a lot of work done. We need you to do more.”

Winchester had been expecting this. If you work too hard, you get more work. He nodded to Rooth.

“So when you get off leave, report for more augmentations.”

“More? I already have the full array, enough for any bio-ship.”

Rooth leaned forward as much as he could and hooked his finger toward himself. Winchester moved closer.

“This is of the highest secrecy. I got you a Behemoth-class ship to test,” said Rooth.

Winchester sat back. He’d heard of the Behemoths, but hearing about them triggered memories of the dream from the morning. He wasn’t sure why. “Those are ready? And you want me to test one?”

“You and only you will test version X of the first Behemoth ship.” Rooth gave a wrinkled smile.

Winchester thought how good an opportunity this could be, working on the most advanced crawl space bio-ship on the planet. Then, he thought about Dala and Varna. “Can I think about it and get back to you?”

Rooth paused for what seemed like a long time. His eye glazed over, and he seemed to glare at Winchester as though he were some detestable thing. From somewhere, Winchester heard a buzzing sound. It intensified then stopped. Winchester thought that was strange.

Rooth relaxed and smiled. “Of course. Think about it, but I really need you to say ‘Yes.’ Now, go on back home.”

They exchanged goodbyes, and Rooth reconnected to his panels. Winchester rose to go. As he left headquarters, he couldn’t help thinking there was something more to the look of anger his boss had given him than mere conflict with a subordinate.

While en route, Winchester confirmed a special session with his psycho-bot. Many Wurlitzurnians went to the analytical machines, but motor-heads were required to go. For them, it was often too much dealing with flying ships in the Black Whole of space, let alone being hated for what they became just to work there.

After more tram-hopping, he arrived at the Psycho-bot complex, a hive structure designed by robots to suit highly structured, unguessable needs. It spanned a series of buildingtops located near the city center. Winchester imagined walking through the complex was as close as he would ever get to being in an ant farm.

He wandered through corridors, passing the closed doors of many other bots and patients. Most people and bots valued anonymity, to the extent that not even the bots knew their patients’ private information. Some would enter and exit through analysts’ windows from waiting aircabs. Winchester never worried that much about privacy. He couldn’t hide being a motor-head.

He arrived at his psycho-bot’s nest. The door rolled to the side, revealing his analyst sitting in a deep pit in a round room. Light from a single, massive, circular window lit the room.

“Ah, motor-head Vinchester. Come in.” The bot came from Astral-Hunk 9 in the Hessian Star system. Winchester still smiled at its accent, though not when it looked at him. The multi-armed psycho-bot gestured with a friendly metal appendage. Other arms swung across multiple panels, scanning Winchester’s, and likely other patients’, case histories.

Winchester entered and sat in a special chair constructed for motor-head patients. It propped up his torso, but not as comfortably as his wife did.

“You haff been gone long. Test piloting has kept you busy?” asked the bot.

Winchester was used to the arms swinging from panel to panel during their sessions, but he wished the robot would keep its eyes on him for more than a glance. “Too busy. I barely have time for my family.”

“You are motor-head. You should expect such things. You mentioned an urgent matter. This vouldn’t be more of your notions of a persecutory delusion? That’s for me to diagnose.”

“No,” said Winchester. “The first thing I wanted to talk about is my sondaughter.”

“The cyclosexual? Go on.”

Winchester could see one of the bot’s panels describing general cyclosexual biology. He didn’t like the idea of Varna being generalized by an encyclopedia entry. “Well, doc, Varna means so much to me, but I feel like everything I do for her — she’s a she right now — is wrong. She wants to be a pilot. She’s even built these rockets that fly around town, filming videos.”

The psycho-bot held up a manipulator. “I see. Let me ponder this problem, and I will provide the logical solution. You said ‘first’. You haff other matters?”

Winchester had to struggle to unclench his fists. The psycho-bot often interrupted him when it felt it had all the facts. “I had a dream.”

The robot brought up a fresh panel. “Ah, interesting. Do continue.” Its eyes never left the panels, but it seemed to be listening.

Winchester recounted the dream that awoke him earlier that morning. The smell of burning and the gradual accumulation of weight. The sensation of separation as he discovered pieces of himself scattered across instrument arrays. “. . . and then there was this woman, armored in chainmail, with white wings and hair, radiant, but terrible, like some kind of dreadful angel.” Suddenly, he saw her there in the office out of the corner of his mechanized eye. She shook her head and gestured for him to stop. Then, he noticed the psycho-bot staring straight at him, its manipulators frozen mid-task. Again, Winchester heard a buzzing, like a far-away field of locusts.

“Is something wrong, doc?”

Slowly, it rose from its nest, like some giant mechanized spider, its arms pushing and dragging itself toward Winchester. “I’ve decided to take your therapy in a new direction, Vinchester.” It raised two metal manipulators over its head.

The dreadful angel screamed, “Jump, Winchester!”

He lurched from his seat and propelled himself like a poorly guided missile across the room. The psycho-bot’s arms crashed behind him.

Winchester collapsed against the curved wall of the room.

He wasn’t built for rapid movement, but neither was the doctor. It guided itself toward him by pushing off wall and panel.

“This does not bode vell for your diagnosis, my boy!” The psycho-bot seemed to grow confident as it lurched over faster and herded Winchester away from the door.

Manipulators crashed like whips by his head as Winchester tried to keep his balance while sliding against the wall.

A brilliant white flash from the angel startled him. He was surprised the doctor seemed to see it too. She had drawn a curved, chrome blade from behind her back and held it aloft.

“Run this way, toward the window!” said the angel. She pointed her sword toward the giant circular glass lens. “Trust me. Jump through it.”

The psycho-bot redoubled its efforts to dash Winchester’s brains against the wall.

Something about the angel made Winchester trust her. He guarded his face with an arm and ran for the window like a ram. His heavy metal torso smashed through plate glass. For an instant, he had the vertiginous sensation of slowed time and free fall; then, he crashed hard onto something and rolled. When he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the slow arc of the spider-like psycho-bot as it fell toward the mists of the city below.

Winchester checked his new surroundings. He was on the deck of a passing vehicle. He turned and saw its name: In curvy green and gold letters, it read, “Fortunate Fish”.

                             #

“What’re you doing here? No ship docked.”

Winchester had been trying to stand with shaky legs on the deck of a flying restaurant when he heard the voice behind him. He turned to see a dark-haired man in sandals, holding a mop that wasn’t much thinner than him. Under a greasy apron, Winchester could just see several faded clan tattoos.

“Sorry,” said Winchester. “I just fell out of a building.” With the realization came fear. He could have joined the psycho-bot on the street far below. Winchester trembled.

The man looked him over, squinting with deep, sharp eyes. “Never rains, but it pours. Come into the kitchen.” He motioned for Winchester to follow.

The odors within seemed three-dimensional, as though each were part of a thick tapestry, decorating walls and filling empty spaces. Several pots bubbled on a stove, and jars of unidentifiable off-world creatures cluttered shelves.

Most of the signs and menus were in a language he couldn’t understand. He could have used the translator in his mechanized eye, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what anything was.

“Have a seat. They’re clean,” said the skinny man, motioning toward the kitchen counter.

Winchester sat and tried to balance on a stool meant for much less bulky people.

The man poured Winchester a drink. It looked like motor oil and smelled like licorice. One sip and all his muscles began to relax.

“Fell out of a building, huh? What happened?”

Winchester tried to explain, but stumbled over why his therapist would try to kill him, and he left the angel out.

“You’re a motor-head, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Winchester, sipping more of the beverage as the man set out a steaming bowl of soup that smelled spicy and had unidentifiable things in it.

“Ah, then you get a free sweet bun.” The man laid one beside the bowl.

“A free sweet bun? But I just fell out a window and a robot tried to kill me.”

“Look on the bright side. Now you get a free sweet bun.”

Winchester couldn’t argue with that. He ate his food and sipped his wonderful drink. “I’m Winchester Stranglehold,” he said between mouthfuls.

“My name translates as ‘Lustrous Pearl’ in your planet’s language. I’m the owner of the ‘Fortunate Fish’.” He swept his hands across the view of his ship. “My friends call me ‘Lust’.”

“Pearl it is,” said Winchester. “Your food’s delicious. Why is no one here?”

“Aw,” Pearl looked away and began polishing the counter with a rag. “If I had people in here every day, I’d have nothing but work to do.” He shrugged and stared at his feet.

“Well, I’ll be sure to tell my–” Winchester wanted to say “friends”, but he had so few. “–coworkers about your restaurant.” Winchester glanced around. “Anybody else work here?”

“In my clan, it’s traditional for the whole family to work together. On this planet, I’m all I got, now.”

“What happened?”

“Aww, you don’t want to hear.”

Winchester pulled another cup over, set it in front of Pearl, and poured him some of the licorice liquid. “I told you about being chased by a robot and falling out of a building.”

The man smiled. Then, it went away. “My clan was from the planet Gallium Chalice. After the Wind-up Empire destroyed it, we worked as cooks on a refugee ship. Then, my wife died.”

“I’m sorry.” Winchester thought about Dala.

“It’s okay, now. But I had daughter too. She contracted Hawking’s Cough. It was bad. She’d break out coughing one morning and disappear into next week.”

“I thought there was a cure.”

“There is now! At the time, I could afford to have her time-snapped at the Hospitaller’s Constellation, but not to get her unsnapped. Now, I’m trying to save money for her release. At least she’ll still be young. I’m getting old.”

From Winchester’s mechanized periphery, he saw the angel. She sat beside him at the counter. Her alabaster wings shone even in the dim lighting of the Fish, and the links of her armor glinted like scales. She sipped at a cup of her own and glared at Winchester.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I couldn’t reach my daughter.”

“I try to look on the bright side,” said Pearl. “I’ll tell you when I find it. Speaking of which, is there something you’re not telling me? You keep looking to your right like you expect someone to be there. Someone following you?”

Winchester thought about the angel, sitting next to him and scowling. “Sort of.” He thought about telling this funny chef everything. Maybe there was something in the drink, but he felt like Pearl might want to talk with him. “I had a dream this morning, except I’m starting to think it wasn’t a dream. I was testing a new kind of ship, one I had completely merged with, rather than partially as an ordinary motor-head. And we were crashing.”

“You ever crash for real?” asked Pearl.

“Yes, happens to every pilot, but we were disintegrating on re-entry. And I could feel the ship’s pain.”

“Is that normal?”

“No! This was some special kind of ship. But it and the pain felt more like memories than dream.” Winchester glanced at the angel. She twirled her finger around the lip of her half-full cup. “There was something else, too. I didn’t want to say, but you told me about your daughter.”

Pearl nodded.

“I saw something on the ship I can’t explain: an angelic woman with white wings, and she’s been following me around since I woke up. She’s sitting next to me.”

The angel slapped her head.

The chef finished his drink and said, “Hmm, okay, man. Maybe you are seeing chainmail ladies from space. I dunno. I do know I’ve taken you about as far as I can. Come with me, and I’ll drop you off at nearest tram station.”

Winchester felt his upper body grow heavier. He thought he was making a friend, but the chef rose, and Winchester joined him. The angel was gone. However, as Pearl passed where she had been seated, he did a double take. There were three cups on the counter. Come to think of it, thought Winchester, had he mentioned the angel was armored?

                             #

He heard the Fortunate Fish leave, but couldn’t watch it go. He decided to catch the next tram headed his way alone.

All around him, passersby, in their neutral-colored outfits, parted around him as he made his way over congested crowd movers and down hover elevators. Had Winchester ever been like those people before he’d been changed? No, he’d always wanted to be a pilot. To feel a ship under his command; his head merged within its control panel, body bowed like a religious devotee. Free to fly forever across the Black Whole of space.

“Hey, Win,” said a voice behind him. “Ridin’ is still flyin’. You’re supposed to be a planetside pedestrian until your leave is up.”

“Hello, Lailow.” He was almost a friend. Winchester had known him since joining the motor-heads. Having been through the experience first, Lailow had prepared Winchester for his conversion. But knowing about the knife doesn’t dull its sting. “You on leave, too?”

“Yeah, but I got no family like you. I usually waste a couple o’ days leave time down at the Talestore catchin’ up on backissues.”

“That stuff’ll rot your brain,” said Winchester, dodging a rogue tidy-bot.

“Yeah,” said Lailow, “but I’m not doin’ anything with it.”

“You want to ride with me as far as you’re going?” What Winchester needed was company; he might not have a lot in common with Lailow, but he liked the guy.

“Yeah, okay. But you know, from this station, we’re going to have to sit in the ‘motor-heads only’ car on the tram.”

“What?”

The dreadful angel appeared in the corner of Winchester’s eye. He tried not to glance her way, even though she attempted to get his attention.

Lailow stopped mid-stride, as though trying to find the right words. Pondering the injustice of motor-head life? Winchester thought.

Lailow turned Winchester’s way, seeming to look at something on the horizon. Then, he smiled. “Yes, it’s a new city ordinance. Solidarity, brother.” He slapped Winchester’s shoulder. It rang like a dull bell. “Let’s go catch a tram.” Lailow led on. Winchester heard the buzz again, so close he could feel it like a root canal.

Lailow suddenly seemed strange to Winchester, awkward and unlike himself. His limbs jerked as he moved, and he seemed to forget how to balance his torso. Winchester followed to make sure he was all right.

Sure enough, when they arrived at the tram, one car was marked for motor-heads. Winchester didn’t mind so much. He often picked the last car on the tram; it had the rockets, and the noise usually kept most other people away. However, he didn’t like being told where he belonged.

The door rolled open, and Lailow motioned for him to enter. As he did, Lailow shoved him in hard enough that Winchester crashed into the opposite wall.

“Hey, Lailow, dammit!” Winchester stumbled around to see the door roll shut. He heard the pops of tiny explosions and saw the flash of sparks through the windows. “Lailow, what are you doing?” Winchester rushed across the car to see Lailow stepping away from the door mechanism. He stared through the glass at Winchester, his living eye as cold and unresponsive as his mechanical one.

“This motor-head knows where you live, Winchester Stranglehold. You’re no longer needed.” Lailow moved to an external control panel.

“Lailow, you’re freaking me out.” Winchester heard the lock that held his car to the next disengage. “Lailow?” But he no longer responded to Winchester at all. The rockets for the tram started in reverse. Winchester watched his friend turn around, and walk away as the tram backed out of the station.

What just happened? What did he mean about where I live? thought Winchester. The station receded, and the single car flew slow and uncontrolled into the cacophony of city air traffic.

And the angel was there in the tram car with him, appearing luminous and hovering. “He’s been taken by the buzzbomb virus, Winchester. I couldn’t do anything; I’m sorry. You’ve been extremely resistant to me.”

Winchester stormed the angel. “Sorry? You’re sorry? What about my family? He said he knows where I live!”

“I’d be happy to explain everything, but don’t you think you should try to do something before you reach those buildings?” She pointed over Winchester’s shoulder out the rear windows of the car.

Air cars and trailers swerved around them, horns screeching as they passed. The fliers worried Winchester, but they seemed to want to avoid him as much as he, them. But the buildings of downtown would not be so flexible.

“I can’t reach the rockets from in here,” said Winchester. “This is a tram. Passengers aren’t meant to fly it.”

“What do you have that you can use?” asked the angel.

“Now you’re trying to be helpful?” snapped Winchester.

“Stop resisting me. Those buildings are getting close. What do you have?”

“I can merge with any control system, if I can reach it. But those are outside.”

“Is anything inside?” she asked.

He thought. “Power and lighting. I could make the lights flash.”

“Be serious,” said the angel. “You haven’t much time.”

Something switched inside Winchester; his emotional inhibitor activated, and the pilot in him took over. “The hover panel on the bottom of the car. I can control that.”

“But if you turn that off you’ll fall like a stone.”

Winchester started ripping up the carpet, searching for the power panel lid. “Not off, in reverse. The panels can be set to attract instead of repel; the drag will slow us over the rooftops, but we’ll bleed power. I have to make what I do count.” He found the panel.

He ripped it from its hinges. Beneath, the controls glowed like tiny jewels, Winchester kneeled to let his hood relays merge. “I won’t be able to see while I do this. Can I trust you to be my eyes?”

“If you only knew how much you can trust me,” she answered.

“Then look, and tell me when we’re over a building. I have to do this fast.”

“Now!”

Too soon. Winchester reversed the hover panel to be a drag panel. The tram lurched downward toward the buildingtop below, and he felt the dip as though his stomach dropped out of his body. But it wasn’t enough.

“We’re past that one,” said the angel.

“More warning next time.”

“Start now.”

He did and felt the car connect with the rooftop. The savage scraping and shuddering nearly dislodged Winchester from the controls, but the angel hovered unaffected.

They were beyond the edge of the roof and flying free again. Soon the hover panel would be out of power, but the rockets would continue until they ran out of fuel.

“Can you fly out of this car?” asked Winchester.

“You don’t have to worry about me. Save yourself, and I’ll be fine.”

“All right. We haven’t much power left, but I have a plan. Find me a rooftop we can drag on for a while. Follow whatever I do.”

“Now! Turn it on now!”

Last of the power. He let it burn. The tram car hit the rooftop and dragged as the rockets pulled the car along, sending sparks higher than the windows. The shock threw Winchester away from the controls. It no longer mattered. He turned, covered his face, and smashed his hood through the nearest window, glass falling away like diamonds among the sparks. He could see the rockets pulling the car toward the next closest building. Winchester leaped while he still had building left to land on and hoped the angel would follow.

                             #

“Hurry! Hurry!” The damn autocabs were so slow and dumber than rockets on a tricycle. But they had no AI or cyberpilots, and the angel had said that was important.

Winchester’s arms had stopped oozing blood, but still throbbed. The improvised bandages helped, but his blood speckled his uniform. Rolling from a moving tramcar onto a rough rooftop had cut him but superficially. All his systems functioned, but he’d never get the dents out of his hood or the kinks out of his shoulder struts. He was permanently scarred.

“Your destination is stationary,” said the autocab. “We require no more than the legally proscribed haste.”

“Stupid machine.” Winchester considered pummeling the interface, but why re-open his wounds?

“Calm down.” The angel floated a wire width above the seat as though she couldn’t mix with something so mundane. She barely fit in the cab, or rather, Winchester barely fit in with her. Her wings, even folded, occupied much of the free space. She was becoming tangible as well. He could feel the tickle of her feathers on his hand, and she radiated coolness, like a breeze on a rainy day.

“Calm down? Lady, I have to get to my family! You have three options: speed me home like a helpful angel should, tell me something useful, or shut up!”

Winchester seethed. He thought about something happening to his family and that he could be the cause. Automatic systems in his hood tried to adjust his emotional level, but he overrode them. He wanted to feel; it kept him sharp.

The angel looked hurt. She tried to rest a hand on his bloody arm, but it passed through. “I’m sorry. I forgot how little you know at this point in time.”

“At this point . . . ? What do you mean?”

The look the angel gave him reminded him of the one teacher-bots gave him growing up in a school-box. “You know where we met was no dream. When I pulled your mind back in time over the neu-wave transmission, it was to follow something terrible.”

“I remember.” He did, but he didn’t believe. “But the neu-wave is just a way of sending data back in time to solve certain crawl-space equations.”

“Data. You. Me. And the buzzbomb virus. We’re all information in the younger Winchester’s hood. He’s the carrier.”

Winchester glanced out the curved glass of the autocab down chrome and neon alleyways and over rooftops littered with receiver arrays. He wasn’t far from home. “Carrier of what? What’s a ‘buzzbomb virus’?”

“You know how most people feel about motor-heads? In the future, some decide to do something about it.”

“What does the virus do?” asked Winchester.

“It can take over cyborgs or AI systems, and its only purpose is to kill you and your family.”

Winchester pulled away from the angel. “What? Why me? Why my family?”

“Stop!” The angel’s voice rang like steel on stone. Winchester shut up. She continued. “This is partly my fault. I had thought the buzzbomb virus came back on its own. I was wrong. It came back in you. But you’re safe because of me. I’m a virus, too. A special kind. As for your family, they’re up to you.”

And they weren’t safe from who he’d infected: his friend, Lailow.

The autocab approached the landing bay of Winchester’s apartment complex. Other questions would have to wait.

As the cab departed, so did the angel. Fine, thought Winchester. This was his job to do anyway.

Everything appeared normal as he crept through the dilating bay door. The corridors were quiet, and he could hear the deep-down hum of the ventilation unit and feel air currents across his skin.

He entered the code to his apartment door, and it rolled open. The smells of coffee and dinner greeted him. Tidy-bots circled around his feet and above his head. Nothing appeared out of place, but he entered as though Lailow might leap from any corner.

“Winchester?”

He jumped. “Dala.” His wife approached him from the kitchen. “You scared me.”

“Why are you creeping around?” she asked.

He hugged her. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” They parted, but still clasped arms. “I haven’t got much time to explain. I think someone might try to kill us. I think we need to get someplace safe.”

“What? Who?”

“Lailow.”

“Your friend? Oh, Winnie. Are you sure you aren’t being a little paranoid again?”

“No! Okay, maybe I have in the past, but he just tried to kill me. I’m surprised he’s not here now.”

Dala must have noticed Winchester’s damage because she ran a hand over his dented hood and bandages. “You’re serious. Gods, you’re scaring me.”

“Go pack a bag. Is Varna here?”

“She’s in her room.”

Winchester rushed back to Varna’s room and pounded the door. “Varna, honey. Open up.”

From within he heard her muffled voice. “I’m not in the mood now, dad.”

He was about to respond when he heard an explosion from the apartment entrance.

Varna opened her door.

Winchester couldn’t hear its usual swish because of the discharge of some unknown weapon and the crashes of destroyed furniture.

“Dad? What’s happening?”

Winchester cupped a bandaged hand over Varna’s mouth. She struggled and tried to get him to let go. She bit him. It didn’t hurt, but he released her.

“Leggo of me!” She tried to fight Winchester’s grasp.

“Hush! Be quiet.”

Lailow entered the hallway to Varna’s room, looking more like a shadow in the glare from the living room. Winchester could see the silhouette of the batterbeam pistol in his hand.

“Oh, no!” Winchester grabbed Varna and wrapped as much of himself around her as he could.

Lailow, or the virus that inhabited him, must not have had much experience with his weapon. Golden glowing beaters ricocheted off the screens, destroying the video photos and setting fire to the walls. Finally, they focused on Winchester’s back. The bronze-colored metal of his head and shoulders would protect him for a while, but soon the beaters would pound their way through him until they reached Varna.

The salvo stopped. Winchester heard the crackle of small fires and smelled smoke.

“You struggle to protect your freakish sondaughter,” said Lailow. “But we shall stop your family before you can spread your monsters among the stars.”

Winchester grunted as the beaters bit into his back again, forcing him and Varna against the hallway wall. Winchester’s legs buckled.

The beaters stopped.

“Get away from my family!” That was Dala’s voice from the other room.

Lailow began to scream as the sound of a dozen tidy-bots filled the hallway.

Winchester risked turning his upper body to see Lailow covered by tidy-bots. Their multi-tools gripped at sensitive areas and their scourers tore at his chest unit.

Lailow began to fire wildly toward the room where Dala was. She screamed.

“Dala!”

All of the anger, panic, and fear that he’d been feeling since the cab ride took Winchester over at that moment. He left Varna crouching at the wall and crossed the length of the hall in two massive strides. He grabbed at his former friend and ripped one of the tidy-bots from Lailow’s flesh and began smashing him in the face and delicate areas of his head. Lailow dropped his pistol.

“Dad, stop!” Varna held his arm, trying to stop him from pounding Lailow’s lifeless body. His face and hood were a twisted crater of red metal. Winchester let his own hood calm his emotions, and he felt his breathing slow.

The fires had started to spread, and already Winchester had begun to cough.

Dala! She was in the living room. Winchester rose from Lailow’s body and lurched into the other room. Varna followed.

Dala lay on the floor, her breathing rapid and raspy. Several beaters had caught her across her chest and shoulder; one arm hung loosely in its socket, held only by shreds of muscle and flesh. Blood covered the floor and her beautiful filament dress.

As he knelt, he noticed how the pulse-pattern of the dress had become a random stutter.

“Sweetheart.” He stroked her smooth head, and she opened her eyes.

“Winnie,” her voice was no louder than a sigh.

Varna began to cry. “Dad, do something.” She held her mother’s arm, forcing her to cry out. Varna let go.

Winchester knew there was no way they could get a med-zeppelin to their apartment in time. The fire spread toward them.

“Hang on, sweetheart. We’ll get you out of here.”

Varna reached for Winchester’s hand. He grabbed it and held on.

“No,” said Dala. “You have to get out of here.” Dala brushed her good hand over Varna’s. “Please watch over my Winnie. He’ll be so alone now.”

Varna couldn’t speak, only nodded.

Dala turned back to Winchester. “I’ve left something for you.” She passed him a memory biscuit. “I hope it helps.” The flashing lights from her dress slowed and then stopped. Varna laid her head against Winchester’s shoulder. He couldn’t feel her, but he sensed her weight.

“What could Dala possibly have left me that would do any good?” he asked, mostly of himself.

“Me,” said the angel, appearing beside him.

                             #

“Varna, we have to go!”

She had run from Winchester while he carried Dala’s body. Now he stumbled through the smoky hallways back toward his sondaughter’s room. Dala’s body was heavy, but he’d carry it anywhere.

Fire consumed their living room furniture and raced up ancient hanging rugs, draping walls and corridors. Smoke burned Winchester’s living eye, but a fan system in his hood kept him breathing without choking. He felt the heat sear the skin on his arms and cheeks. Why couldn’t Varna have stayed with me? he thought. He absorbed data from Dala’s memory biscuit while he waited.

“You can’t wait for the fire brigade,” said the angel. She hovered behind Winchester, like a stray glow-bot at a tram station. “You’ll corrupt the bots, and you don’t want firedogs after you.”

Varna came around a corner, a damp towel over her mouth. “I got it, Dad,” her voice muffled by her hand, “my rocket controls.”

“You went back for your damn rockets?” Winchester grabbed her arm and urged her back toward the apartment entrance.

“I couldn’t just leave them. They’d be lost without me.”

He didn’t want to think what he’d be like without her. As they exited the apartment, Winchester heard the fire alarm for their floor. The stink of smoke clung to them even as they left the fire behind and ran along the hall toward the landing bay.

“Where are we going, Dad?”

“To the shuttlebug.”

“Why aren’t we staying for the fire brigade? Where are we taking Mom? What just happened back there?”

Winchester thought about how all his possible explanations were as intangible and diaphanous as the angel trailing behind him. Varna deserved something; otherwise, she might start to panic. He grabbed her hand as they hurried. “I don’t know everything yet. People are trying to kill us. We have to get away.”

“Are you trying to keep me calm? You’re being so helpful. Thanks.”

She was sarcastic again. That was a good sign. They entered the landing bay. Nesting in a corner, hovering above the ground, was their family shuttlebug. Winchester sent an “open” signal with his key, and its door dilated. Eight thruster appendages extended from its underside.

Winchester glanced at his sondaughter. She was getting so tall now. He had to make her grow up even faster. “You’re going to have to fly.”

Her eyes widened. “Me? I’ve never done it before. You never let me. Why now?”

“Emergency. I can’t fly it without corrupting its AI. I’m depending on you.” A crash course in flying and working together was a recipe for rebellion, but this might keep her from thinking too much about losing her mom, for a little while.

Her lips trembled as though she were pondering the plan. “I’ll do my best.”

They entered the shuttlebug. Winchester lay Dala’s body in the back seat. He could feel the emotional governor taking control and trying to soothe him. But he wanted to feel. His wife lay still and would never move again. He wanted to be himself so he could remember what he’d felt when he and Varna let Dala go.

Varna sat in the pilot’s chair. “What do I do?” she said. “I can’t merge with the controls. I don’t have a hood like yours.”

Winchester reached into a shuttle compartment over his head and pulled down a dusty headset with curly wires trailing from various nodes. A drizzle of packing bubbles followed after.

“Here.” He handed the headset to Varna. “This came with the bug; it’s for piloting smaller vehicles like this one. You’ll have to use the factory defaults, but you’ll be flying.”

She held it in her hands, unsure of what to do with it.

“You know,” said Winchester, “if you put that on, you’ll be the equivalent of a junior motor-head.”

She crammed the set on her head, like a matte-black tiara and began tapping wires into the board.

Landing bay doors opened, and the bug lurched forward like a crippled spider. Winchester imagined its thruster appendages kicking faster and faster as the shuttlebug left the bay.

“Beautiful take-off, Varna.”

“You mean it?”

“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”

“Well . . . whatever. I don’t need compliments from you.”

“Fine,” said Winchester, “but bank to port or we’ll crash into that carrier.”

Varna over-corrected and became flustered. Winchester remembered she had no governor stabilizing her emotions and tried to remember that feeling of freedom. He reached over and corrected her roll, but she slapped his hand away. She’d make a good pilot after all.

“Where are we going?”

“To a funeral kiosk. We’ll launch your mother into space in a pyrostar; she was Uranian, although a little unorthodox.”

“We’re going to get rid of Mom?” Varna almost whispered the question.

“We can’t take her with us. She would have wanted a burial in space.”

Varna said nothing as she flew, and then, “I’ve always wanted to go into space. I never thought Mom would get there first.”

Winchester put his hand on Varna’s. “I’ll do everything I can to get you there.”

She took her hand back and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Then, she grabbed Winchester’s hand again.

The angel leaned forward from the back and was about to say something, but Winchester pointed a warning finger at her. Varna had not yet been able to see the angel, and Winchester wanted to keep it that way for a while. The angel backed away.

The shuttlebug approached a funeral kiosk, and its forward momentum slowed. Winchester hinted at what Varna needed to do to land while still letting her think she already knew how to do everything on her own.

The legs of the shuttlebug grasped the hitching post, and the bug came to a halt.

“Still don’t need any compliments?”

“No,” said Varna.

Funeral kiosks weren’t much to look at. Beyond the landing area stood the interface, where families of the deceased chose the last rites to be performed during liftoff of the pyrostar. From the rear of the kiosk extended the electromagnetic catapult, a long, steel rail, like a strand of silver wire, ran toward the horizon and up into the sky. When launched, the pyrostar would coast along the rail until launching off the end out into space.

Winchester wrapped his dead wife into a shroud and carried her toward the kiosk. He wasn’t sure if it was an effect of the emotional governor, but time seemed to slow. He saw the lights of passing tramcars snake along their way into the orange haze of twilight. Blazing horns of traffic deepened as though receding into the past. Dala seemed to grow heavier as he and Varna approached the interface. A thought flashed into his mind. He remembered all the prop times with Dala when she supported him as he talked over his troubles. He’d never have that again.

“Our condolences,” said the squat box of the interface. “Whom would you like us to commend to the Black Whole of space?”

“My Mom,” said Varna.

                             #

Winchester had been banished to the back of the shuttlebug by his sondaughter. She didn’t want him to see her cry, and, truth be told, he felt the same about himself. He sat on the same bench where his wife had last lain. He struggled to cry through the emotional inhibitor. The tears, when they came, fell in a drizzle rather than a deluge.

A beeping noise came from somewhere nearby. It sounded muffled, like an alarm clock wrapped in rubber. Winchester didn’t recognize it as a shuttlebug sound.

“Varna, is that something of yours?”

He saw her wipe her eyes with her sleeves and cock her head toward the back to listen. “My rockets! Bring me my bag.”

Winchester grabbed it and brought it forward.

Varna coaxed the shuttlebug into autopilot and removed her headset controls. She took the bag, burying a hand deep within its folds. Clothes and random bits of electronic bric-a-brac fell from within onto the floor.

“Ah-ha!” She removed a pocket dashboard from the bag and stroked its surface to wake it. “My rockets are checking in. I programmed them to follow us.” She moved her fingers in arcane swirls across the dash.

“Varn/Varna, sir!” chorused a troop of Varna’s rockets.

“I’m still a ‘ma’am’ for now, but skip it,” she said into the pocket dash speaker. “Report.”

Several high-pitched rocket voices chimed in unison. “Um, ma’am.” These rockets weren’t very smart. No danger of Winchester infecting them. “You ordered us to watch vehicles following along more than fifty percent of your path, reporting only high statistical outliers. Uh, there is one vehicle fitting those criteria.”

Varna sighed.

“You programmed your rockets to do that? That’s fantastic! You’re just like . . .” Winchester stopped himself from saying “your mom” and switched to “. . . a true future motor-head.” He hoped she wouldn’t notice.

She didn’t say anything. “They’re a bit dim. I sacrificed wit for size.” To the dash, she said, “Show me the outlier.”

On the tiny screen, several images resolved themselves into one multi-view perspective.

“Oh, no,” said Winchester.

Behind them, bobbing along between chrome and neon facades of residence hives and corporate pyramids, a spy shuttle followed. Its puff-drive coughed out steam behind a giant electronic eye mounted on the vehicle’s bow. The eye’s pixelated slit scanned to either side but always returned to its center, where, Winchester knew, they were the focus of its attention.

“It’s an eye-pod,” he said. “It’ll never give up now that it’s seen us.”

“Why’s it looking for us? Is this more of what you’re not telling me?”

“I’m not hiding things from you. I don’t know everything myself. But whoever is after me has stepped up the pursuit.”

“What are we going to do?” asked Varna. “Whatever they want can’t be good. We have to escape.”

The eye ceased its wavering and focused on their shuttlebug. Winchester knew the spying drone had transmitted their location before he and Varna had begun to ponder the problem. All that remained was for it to keep tabs on the shuttlebug until the eye-pod operators arrived.

“I have an idea,” said Varna, “but I don’t know that I like it.”

“What? We should talk about anything.”

“It means destroying one of my rockets, and I don’t know if I could bear that.”

“Varna, I’ll buy you a dozen new bloody blue rockets when this is over. What’s your idea?”

“I could order one to crash into the eye. If anything, it will slow the eye-pod down.”

Winchester leaned over and kissed Varna on the forehead. She wrinkled her face and rubbed her brow. “That’s a great idea,” said Winchester. “Let’s do it.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want to hurt any of my rockets.”

Winchester took Varna’s hand. “Sweetheart, we’re in trouble. Sometimes being a motor-head means making hard decisions.”

Winchester thought about a future he remembered only like a dream, one in which he had to make a difficult choice and follow the mysterious angel from a dying ship.

Varna took her hand back and touched the pocket dash. “Rocket 42, report in.”

A crackle of static, then, “Yes, ma’am. Rocket 42 reporting for duty.”

Varna clenched her free hand into a fist. “My father and I are in trouble. We need your help. I want you to–” Varna looked at her father as though searching for another answer. “–to crash yourself into the eye of the pursuing eye-pod.”

“Affirmative, ma’am. And good luck to you and your dad.” To the other rockets, number 42 said, “Goodbye, fellows. Nothing lasts forever!”

From the rear viewer of the shuttlebug, Winchester could see the unblinking eye of the pod as it followed. Suddenly, Winchester saw the sharpened nose cone of rocket 42 swoop in from port and bury itself in the drone’s eye like a dart in a board.

The eye-pod swerved, and the rocket prevented its eye from moving in its orbit. The pod’s flight became erratic as it tried to shake the rocket loose. Finally, the slow-moving pod bumped into the wall of a nearby building as it tried to dislodge the needle-like rocket from its eye.

“It was a good rocket, Varna.” Winchester patted her on the shoulder. “Now, let’s make the most of what it’s done. Find us someplace obvious to land.”

“Obvious?”

“Whoever’s following us knows our shuttlebug. We have to ditch it. Let’s leave this vehicle someplace where our pursuers can find it while we search for another ride.”

“Another ride? Like a tram or a cab?”

“No,” said Winchester. “Those would be good if we knew where we were going. We need to get away and think as we go. I have an idea, but first let’s get rid of the bug.”

Nearby, they found a landing stage for a disused sky temple. They left the bug, its thruster appendages tucked beneath it, on the center of the stage, directly under a busy sky path. When the people who sent the eye-pod came, they would find the bug.

“So what’s your big idea?” asked Varna.

Winchester pulled out his comm-snake; its long neck unfurled and the hood opened to reveal its communication screen. “Information,” said the snake.

To Varna, Winchester said, “I’m going to call on a long shot.” He glanced back at the snake, which hissed low in anticipation of a request. “I need a listing under ‘Restaurants’,” he said.

After the call, Winchester and Varna strolled along the conveyor paths bridging many of the city’s popular buildings. Winchester always drew strange looks, and there was no hiding what he was. Varna, however, blended in with the passersby. She never attracted curious glances, except for her in-between times when she was a little too much of one sex and not enough of the other. Winchester wasn’t sure, but the pendulum might be swinging back toward boyhood. Was that getting easier to tell? he thought. Maybe he was just paying greater attention to her.

The red neon lights danced across the faces of pedestrians, which blurred across the chrome filigree adorning the buildings. At the food dock, aromas from the cuisine of a dozen cultures wove together as Winchester and Varna approached.

Off to one side, between the Mediterranean Convoy and the Star Gypsies, perched the Fortunate Fish.

“I don’t know why you couldn’t finish your call in front of me,” said Varna. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course I do,” said Winchester. “It’s not that. Dealing with Pearl is very delicate, and I wanted to bargain in private.”

“Bargain?”

A thin man in sandals and a food-stained apron opened the door to the restaurant and beckoned to Winchester and Varna. “Quick. Get inside before someone sees you,” said Pearl. “Are you nuts? Motor-heads stand out like an octopus at a tea party!” He ushered them onto the deck of the Fish and through its doors as he closed them behind.

The Fish looked much as it did before, but the smell had more of a sweet, acidic tang to it. Winchester could still hear the sound of pots simmering, and their steam added to the general haze of the place. The tables and barstools still stood empty.

“Thanks for letting us hide here, Pearl,” said Winchester. “We needed to get out of sight.”

“You picked the right place for it. Nobody comes here. Who’s this?”

“My daughter. Pearl, this is Varna.”

Pearl wiped a small hand across his greasy apron. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’ll get you some soup.”

He trotted off toward the kitchen, and Varna looked around for a place to wipe her hand and decided on her father’s uniform. “This is who you called for help?”

“I’m running out of options,” said Winchester. “He seems like a decent sort.”

Pearl came back with a tray of soup bowls. He beckoned to the others to join him at a table. “I gotta tell you, man,” said Pearl. “I almost didn’t come back until you mentioned your bargain.”

“Bargain?” asked Varna. “Is that what you didn’t want me to hear on the call?”

Pearl paused with the spoon on its way to his mouth. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No.” To Varna, Winchester said, “Honey, he wasn’t going to come. I needed to make a deal. That’s all.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Oh, it’s very honorable,” said Pearl. “One father to another. He’s going to pay to get my daughter out of time-snap.”

Varna stared open-mouthed at the two of them. “What kind of ‘friend’ makes a deal like that?”

“Actually,” said Pearl, “I hardly know your dad, and he made me nervous talking about his chainmail space chick last time.”

“Wait a minute,” said Winchester. “You make that sound really bad.”

Varna pointed her spoon at him. “You’d better explain that, fast. Who’s he talking about?”

From a darkened corner of the restaurant, steam and haze swirled and coalesced into a form. A figure approached the table and said, “He means me.”

“M-mom?”

Winchester looked hard at the angel as she stood by the table. He didn’t know why he’d never seen it before Varna suggested it, but the angel did look like Dala, a Dala from a long time ago, a Dala that now seemed like a ghost.

“This is your mother?” asked Pearl. “What’s going on? Am I seeing spirits?”

“No, Pearl. I’m no ghost. I’m a computer virus designed by Dala to help Winchester.”

“Why can they see you now?” asked Winchester.

“You downloaded Dala’s biscuit,” said the angel.

“So I’m not nuts?” asked Pearl of no one. “That was my big concern.”

“You’re not crazy,” said the angel. “Just keenly perceptive.”

“What were you meant to help dad with?” asked Varna. She put her hand on Winchester’s arm. “He has me now. He doesn’t need help from a virus.”

The angel smiled. “I’m glad you feel that way because it will make my job easier. It’s time you all knew what you’re up against. You’ve all felt the animosity the people of this planet have for bodily alterations; Winchester, you’re nearly half machine; Varna, you change your sex; even Pearl has clan tattoos. The people of this world classify you as ‘untouchable’ and tolerate you at a distance. That won’t always be so.

“In the near future, a splinter group will become enraged by Varna and will try to have her killed. They fail and attempt to eliminate her by more desperate measures.”

“Me?” asked Varna. “Why?”

“You will become the first cyclosexual pilot. Because you can change sex, the bio-ships of the future won’t be able to adapt to your constant change and reject you as a foreign organism, like other pilots.”

“You mean me,” said Winchester.

“That’s the theory,” said the angel. “Varna will be the proof, and she’ll be a hero to thousands of other untouchables for whom you are an example. At least, that’s what will likely happen if you all can work together.”

“How do you know this?” asked Winchester.

“This isn’t our first time coming back, Winchester,” said the angel. “But it will have to be our last.”

Winchester could tell Varna wanted to speak; she certainly looked as though she could explode. Winchester put his hand on her shoulder. She stayed silent but didn’t try to shrug his hand off as he’d expected.

The angel continued. “The attacking virus is called a buzzbomb because of the sound victims make and the explosive way it can spread. The splinter group chose to send this virus back in time via neu-wave trans along your timeline, Winchester, giving them the opportunity to get to Varna through you. They didn’t expect you and me to follow along. But I ‘inspired’ Dala to create me and put me in the memory biscuit you absorbed. That’s why you don’t buzz. I make you immune. But the immunity only works on you. You’re a carrier.”

“Like carriers of Hawking’s cough don’t get thrown through time,” said Pearl.

“Exactly,” said the angel.

Winchester didn’t like the idea of an angel on his shoulder, guiding his hand. “How much of what I’m doing really comes from me? You’re a virus infecting me. Am I just ‘Winchester 3.0’?”

“Oh, Winchester,” the angel smiled and tried to reach for Winchester’s hand. He withdrew it. “Ever since you agreed to slip back along the transmission beam, you’ve been living a life you chose, but it might not be the one you remembered.”

“Last chance, eh?” said Pearl. “Take it, my man. I wish I could.”

It was Winchester’s turn to stay silent.

The angel turned to Pearl. “So, you sound as though you’re more willing to help those two since you know you’re not crazy. What do you say? This could be your last chance.”

“I’ll hold to my bargain,” he said. “I want my daughter back. Besides, we untouchables have to stick together. Anyone want more soup?” He gathered empty bowls onto the tray and returned to the kitchen.

“Why do you have to look like my mom?” asked Varna of the angel.

“I didn’t mean to. I think I look a little different to everyone.”

“Varna, leave us alone a moment, please.”

“Seriously?” said Varna.

“Varna, please,” said Winchester.

Varna frowned at the angel, rose, and walked out of earshot.

Winchester continued. “You’ve changed who I was and who I’m going to be by bringing me back to this time. You’ve changed who my sondaughter will become. I’m not even sure what would have happened had I never interfered.”

“You changed yourself. I gave you the opportunity, and you took it. When I took you back, that set up a possible timeline in which Varna might have a chance if you succeed. If you had done nothing, she surely would have died.”

Winchester had to admit the angel had a point.

Pearl pushed open the kitchen doors. “Hey, Winchester. Transmission coming in. It’s addressed to you. I’ll pull it up on main scanner.” Pearl crossed the dining room to an ancient-looking cabinet covered with lacquered wooden scrollwork. He opened its doors, revealing the Fish’s main screen.

Pearl accepted the message, and Winchester and Varna joined him in front of the screen. The sender icon preceding the message indicated it came from motor-headquarters. Winchester wondered who would contact him through the Fish and why.

On the screen flashed the sagging face of Modom Rooth, smiling a skeletal grin. “Stranglehold. I need you to report in again.” From somewhere, Winchester heard a sound like a squad of angry hornets in a jar. It was Rooth. The buzz hung around him like a stink.

The angel now filled a dark, hazy corner of the dining room, like a tempest on the horizon. “You know that sound, Winchester. He’s infected, and the other motor-heads are likely to be as well.”

Winchester said to the screen, “I won’t be coming in this time, Rooth, or whatever you really are. How does this work? Does Rooth exist anymore, or has the buzzbomb virus killed him?”

“Ah,” said Rooth. “All cards on the table, eh? Well, let me show you my hand, and then I’ll show you yours. Thank you for spreading the virus to me. I was able to pass it on to other motor-heads with great efficiency. We know where you are, and our shuttlebugs are coming for you. We’ve locked onto your hood, so you can’t hide. We know your wife is dead. Soon, you and your whole freakish family will be, too. Pity this all had to happen on your leave.”

Winchester felt the emotions at first, like an itch somewhere he couldn’t scratch. Then, it built like a fire behind his human eye. The emotional inhibitor struggled to calm him only to succumb to the blaze.

“Hide? We’re not hiding,” he said. “In fact, I want to thank you. Now I know who to go after. We’re waiting for you. Make it quick.” Winchester faced Pearl and Varna. “Close your mouths; I have a plan. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

                        #

“What do you mean you don’t have a plan?” Varna’s face was red and her fists balled, ready to strike.

Winchester had never seen her so mad. Was her voice starting to deepen? he thought. Perhaps a subtle change in her neck and shoulder muscles, too. Winchester had never seen her full transition from girl to boy. She seemed angrier; maybe Winchester could point her at their enemies and leave some of the planning to her. “I said that because Rooth was still on the line,” said Winchester. “I wanted him to think we’re up to something.” He glanced at Varna. She stood fuming. Winchester thought it might be better if he left her alone for a bit.

Pearl stood nearby with a plate in his hand, picking at something squirming with noodles and smelling delicious. “We’d better be up to something soon, or this’ll be a short getaway.”

He was right, thought Winchester. He owed Pearl and Varna a plan, but he had no gift for such things. But he could use the gifts he had. “Pearl, this is an older ship, or restaurant, no offence. Does it have AI?”

“You kidding? It barely flies. Why?”

“Take me to the controls. I’ll buy us some time.”

The cook shrugged and led Winchester toward a door at one side of the dining area. Pearl set down his plate and wiped his hands on his apron and pants.

Winchester marveled at the composure of unflappable chef. “Aren’t you worried? We’re about to be chased by murderous, virus-possessed psychopaths, and you’re eating a snack.”

“Aww, no good worrying. You’re a good pilot. I’m a great chef. All will be well. Besides,” he turned and winked at Winchester, “they’re after you, not me. I’ll just cook them a free lunch. No worries.”

Winchester smiled and wished he could shake his head. Pearl turned and led him into the flight room on the starboard side of the restaurant. It couldn’t have been called something as formal as a “cockpit”. It looked like a broom closet the way Pearl kept it, and it smelled like engine oil. “Thanks,” said Winchester. “I’ll manage from here.” The cook shuffled back to his kitchen.

But could he manage? thought Winchester. Pearl had been right: no AI. But from the looks of the controls, the ship was little more than a flying wind-up toy. Clearly, it stayed on auto-pilot, flying over a pre-set flight plan across the city. The chef probably only grasped the controls to land at the odd food deck. That’s how the Fish flew now, chugging along the skyways, like a hobo searching for an alley.

Winchester could hear the turn of gears and the creak of pulleys as the wheel corrected deviations in their flight path. The most complicated system in the room controlled the hover panel keeping the restaurant aloft.

Pink and orange sunlight filtered between skyscrapers, its early evening brightness dimmed by the shadescreen over the flight room’s viewports. Against the backdrop of twilight, dark specks drifted out of the sky, floating toward the city. The motor-heads were coming. Winchester was going to have to escape the cat with his tail already caught in the mousetrap.

Winchester pulled the squawk tube from the wall and called to the dining hall. “The ride may get a little bumpy, probably the rest of the flight. Varna, if any parts of a plan show up, I’ll be here in the control closet.” He hung up the tube.

He flipped the controls to manual, wound up the cochlear drive, and aimed the Fish deeper into the city.

When he again looked at the horizon through a break in the city skyline, the dark specks were gone. The clutter that had filled the sky, the motor-head ships, must have settled into the city. He imagined them coming for the Fish, hunting them, like an eye-pod, only infinitely deadlier. For motor-heads knew how to fly almost as well as he.

They would find him; he couldn’t change that. His one chance was to make the Fish hard to get to. He aimed the restaurant for the heart of downtown traffic.

Most offworlders found the city’s chaotic commerce district traffic bewildering, never comprehending how a native could fathom or navigate the maze. In truth, natives didn’t bother.

Winchester saw the first wave of traffic ahead. On a world dominated by air travel, the skyway currents flowed in layers. Winchester marveled at the dance of traffic before merging, once again thrilled to be a pilot. When one joined the traffic, one had to realize the flow moved on not just two or three axes, but four, with timing being the most important. Air cabs, shuttlebugs, starhorses, and carryalls crossed between buildings, wove above or below adjacent crossings or people-movers, or dove in vertiginous pursuit of a wide-open path. Winchester knew the Fish could only crawl among such competition, but he also knew his pursuers would be forced to do the same.

“Dad.” Varna had snuck in as Winchester concentrated on the city. “I have some of that plan for you.”

“Still upset at me, sweetheart?”

“Unbelievably,” she said. “But I’m setting that aside for now. If we live through this, I’ll kill you later.”

“That’s my girl. Now, that plan?”

“I still control the rockets. Some are following behind. Some are searching nearby. The people who are chasing us won’t be as easy to destroy as the eye-pod, will they?”

“No, I’m just hoping the virus has blunted their edge.”

A muffled alarm chimed in Varna’s backpack. “The rockets have spotted something.” She pulled her pack around to reach inside.

Before she could answer the alarm, the Fish lurched. Winchester fought to control the sudden plunge to port.

A crash of pans and crockery, followed by a stream of foreign words from Pearl, came from the kitchen.

“Son of all bitches!” Pearl yelled. “We’re under attack!”

“Stay here,” Winchester stood and said to Varna.

“Like Hell!”

Winchester felt his inhibitor kick in. He slammed it back into his subconscious. He grabbed Varna’s shoulder. “Don’t think for one minute I’m above strapping you to that chair and locking you in this closet. Stay! Find out what your rockets have to say.”

He left her there, simmering, and ran to find Pearl.

 

On his way, he felt a cold, gentle hand, like a breeze, graze his arm. It was the dreadful angel.

“See if you can capture one of the motor-heads for me, Winnie,” she said. “I may be able to do something with him.”

Winchester rounded on her. “That was Dala’s name for me. You don’t call me that, however much you look like her.” Another crash, and the Fish lurched again. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.

“Get off my Fish!” The yell came from the kitchen. Winchester followed the noise.

The kitchen had the largest bay of the whole ship to allow access for grocer-pods. Perfect access for a boarding raid. Winchester shattered the kitchen doors like a force of nature.

He hadn’t known what to expect, but it wasn’t what he found.

Pieces of former motor-head lay scattered about the kitchen. One crouched, propped against a counter as he tried to dislodge a cleaver from his hood. A fan of sparks sprayed from the gash. In the center of the melee, Pearl whirled, twin halves of his broken mop cut and stabbed at the more sensitive regions of his enemies.

Winchester shook off his surprise and joined the fight.

He used the brute force that came with a heavy metal torso. His head dashed against noses and jaws, and he tossed opponents like a mechanical bull. But all he saw were the faces.

They were men he knew. Every mangled one. Many he didn’t like; some had almost been friends, as Lailow had. None had deserved to be torn apart like savaged toy soldiers.

Then, there was a broken broom half at his throat. Pearl stared at Winchester along the length of the staff like a berserker ready to kill. Blood splatter criss-crossed his face. “Oh, hey, Winchester.”

“You’re covered in blood.”

Pearl wiped his face and stared at his hand. Then, he ran it against his stained apron. “I’ll wash up before cooking again. Help me get these bodies off my Fish.”

Winchester pointed to the one with the cleaver stuck in his face. “Leave that one. I need him.”

While heaving motor-head parts out of a bay door, Winchester saw what caused the Fish to rock earlier. Several shuttlebugs hung clamped to the side of the Fish like barnacles.

“Keep them there,” he said to Pearl. “It’ll be harder for the next wave to land.”

“Dad!” Winchester heard the yell from the control closet.

To Pearl, he said, “Take cleaver-face to the angel,” and then he headed for Varna. He tried to run as he crossed the Fish, but every joint ached. His feet felt coated in lead as he hobbled toward his sondaughter.

“Varna, what’s wrong?”

“My rockets have reported in. There are dozens of shuttlebugs converging on us from all directions. Soon, we won’t have an open path anywhere.”

“Which way is still free?”

She pointed down an avenue.

“Out of the way. That’s where we’re going.” He strapped himself in and grabbed the controls.

He got his bearings as he flew down Varna’s avenue, avoiding a passing diner-bot. Up ahead past the Riddle Way crowd mover and the twin Temples of Justice, he knew lay Motor-headquarters. They were being guided.

More jolts rocked the Fish, knocking Varna to the floor. Honks sounded as aircabs rolled to avoid the Fish.

“More shuttlebugs,” said Winchester. “The motor-heads are mad because they can’t board.”

“Maybe I can get Pearl to throw pots and pans at them,” said Varna, rising on wobbly legs.

“That’s a good idea. Do you still have the bug headset?”

She looked through her bag. “Right here.”

“You’re amazing.”

Varna smiled.

“Go see if you can chuck some of those ‘barnacles’ on the side of the Fish at our visitors. Distract them with your rockets, too.”

“Any other miracles?”

“I’m making a list. Go!”

Varna left to go plug into the Fish’s view screen.

H.Q. lay ahead, thought Winchester. He was flying into a trap. Varna and Pearl trusted him, and he could think of no way out.

A cold hand touched him on the arm. “It’s all right, Winchester,” said the angel. “Let them herd you back to headquarters. I have a plan.”

He batted away her arm, like a puff of steam. “A plan? What have you done to me and my sondaughter? How can we possibly get out of this mess?”

The angel held her hand. She lowered her head like a scolded child. Winchester saw Dala again in her eyes, her downturned lips.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can’t you see? I don’t even remember how my life used to be before you changed it. I’ve lost my wife and my life. I don’t want to lose Varna, too.”

“How do you see me?” asked the angel.

“You look like an angel of dread, like a storm about to blow in,” said Winchester.

“Ha! Isn’t it strange how people can see others in more than one way? Dala wanted me to be like her, and you see me as a dread angel. Storms bring peace to some, Winchester.” She looked up. “I’m sorry for everything that’s happened, but we didn’t change your past to save you. We’re here for Varna.”

Winchester frowned. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry too. It was a mistake for Dala to make you look like her. I’ve blamed her loss on you. If your plan will save Varna, just tell me what to do.”

“I’ve inspected the motor-head Pearl brought me, and I know what to do. Let the motor-heads guide you to H.Q., and trust me.” She faded, like a passing thought.

Another tremor shook the Fish, cracking the paneling of the control closet. Flaky debris settled on Winchester’s brassy elbows.

He yelled through the doorway. “Varna, you and Pearl get in here.” He wanted them where he could see them.

Winchester struggled to keep the wheel steady. How appropriate, he thought. That’s all he seemed to be doing since he awoke from what he’d thought was a dream.

He was having as much success dodging the attacking shuttlebugs as he had dealing with all his troubles. Fate had herded him, dictated a path without a clear purpose, like the angel. And then there was Dala. What other great loss would he be asked to face?

“Dad!” Varna was in tears. She entered the control closet as Pearl held the door for her. “They’re all gone. Every one.” She laid her head on Winchester’s hood. He peered around her at Pearl.

“Her rockets are all destroyed,” he said.

“They bought us some time,” Varna mumbled. “There’s nothing left to stop the barrage, now.” She raised her head to look into Winchester’s electronic eye. “Except you.”

This was it, he thought. He’d do his best and trust the angel. “Strap yourselves down.”

Up ahead, Winchester could see the red neon of night-time traffic blaze across the polished bronze of the Clock Vortex statue before motor-headquarters. The hero’s statue grew larger in the control closet’s view port.

Winchester heard a sound within the Fish like a crash from the heart of a thunderstorm. The control wheel spun beyond Winchester’s ability to hold it. The Fish whirled in a nauseating dance. Clock Vortex seemed like a giant riding a child’s merry-go-round. Varna screamed as the Fish crashed.

The last memory Winchester’s hood recorded before he lost consciousness was of the giant Clock Vortex looking down on him.

Winchester’s mechanical half came back on-line first. He awoke, coughing, as warning systems urged him to rise. It was like waking to discover your head was part alarm clock.

Varna and Pearl lay nearby. Both alive, but out.

Nothing survived of the control closet. A miracle and Winchester’s metal torso had saved the three of them from a shredding by view port glass, many shards of which jutted from the paneling around them.

Halves of the Fish lay cracked open like an egg. Through the gash, Winchester could see motor-heads before them, crowded at the foot of Clock Vortex.

Winchester struggled to pull himself up. His strained arms and weary legs lifted him higher over debris of the Fish to a clearer vantage point. He wished he hadn’t. Motor-heads approached from all around. This was what trapped felt like.

He clambered back over to Varna’s side and picked up a severed control lever, its cracked gear still clinging to the shaft.

Winchester nudged Varna and Pearl. “Wake up. We’ve got company.”

The swarm of motor-heads surrounding them parted, and Modom Rooth approached.

“And so we have you,” he said, “as though there were ever any doubt. Admittedly, you gave us quite a bit of trouble, for a handful of freaks.”

The motor-heads closed any gaps as they surrounded the Fish.

“Who’s more freakish,” asked Winchester, “the freaks or those who chase them?”

“Means to an end. And you three are definitely at an end.” Each motor-head mimicked Rooth’s gestures like a platoon of puppets.

“So what now?” asked Winchester. “What’s your plan for us and the world?”

“An end,” said Rooth, the buzzing from him and the other motor-heads clearly audible, like a distant chorus of chainsaws. “Not just to your strangeness but to all of it throughout the world. Eliminating your Jack-and-Jill offspring is an unfortunate necessity. Cyclosexuals might make ideal pilots for the Behemoths. But the stars can wait if we need aberrations to take us to them.”

Damn the emotional inhibitor, thought Winchester. No one should talk about Varna like that. He stepped forward to cut away something soft from Rooth with the gear-lever.

Winchester stopped when he saw the glow. From every motor-head’s shoulder, Winchester could see a radiant spot, like a tiny star forming. At first, he saw it only with his mechanical eye, and then his real one.

The stars grew and changed. Each one became the dreadful angel, leaning on the arm and hood of each motor-head, her curved blade drawn across their chests.

All of the motor-heads as one tried to look her way. All struggled against her and failed. She coiled her arms and legs tighter around their hips and shoulders, like an enormous comm-snake.

Gone from her were any angelic traces of Dala. The angel became a demon with leather wings and a twisted grin.

“I have them, Winchester.” Her voice was a hiss, a low rasp. And though it was quiet, it drowned all traces of the buzzing. “I needed you to gather them together to disinfect them and become their own,” she kissed their bronze shoulders, “personal,” she caressed their interfaces, “angels.” She sank her curved sword into their hard drives and disappeared. Each man, wounded to his mechanical soul.

Rooth fell to his knees under the weight of the angel. “What is this?” he screamed.

“The cure,” said Winchester.

The other motor-heads had feared their own versions of the angel. Rooth was the only one who seemed to suffer.

“Get it off me, Winchester!”

“Oh, no,” said Rooth’s angel. “For you, the storm’s blowing in.” Her nails lengthened into claws, which she sank into his hood. Winchester watched her sword disappear up to its hilt beneath the bronze-colored metal.

Winchester wanted to look away but couldn’t. “All right, angel, that’s enough. You’re hurting him.”

“No,” said the angel. “I won’t stop, even for you.” Her arms had vanished deeper into Rooth’s hood.

Several clicking gasps escaped Rooth’s throat.

Winchester stepped toward the angel. “Angel, stop!”

“This is for my family!” She squeezed. Rooth shook, and his living eye became milky white. The light faded from his mechanized eye. Rooth’s body clattered on the steel ground.

Winchester stood stunned, feeling the horror Varn and Pearl must have shared. But Winchester felt relieved as well. The angel had done what he couldn’t have brought himself to do.

He looked and the other motor-heads. They would live, he thought, but it would be a nagging half-life, longing for something always just beyond their periphery, much as he felt after he saw the angel as Dala.

Varna and Pearl joined his side.

“What happens now, dad?” asked Varna. Her voice was deeper, hair hung differently. Winchester would have to start calling him “Varn” again.

Before Winchester could speak, the angel rejoined them. “For you two,” she gestured to Varn and Pearl, “a new story is about to be written. “But Winchester’s is coming to an end.”

With her words, Winchester felt a tingle trickle up his feet.

“What? No! Stay away from my dad!” Varn stepped between the angel and his father.

“I’m sorry, Varn, but Spaceship X has only seconds to live. Once the neu-wave transmitter fails, Winchester’s mind will be drawn back to its place in the future and me with it. But it will be a new future.” The angel rested a hand on Varn’s shoulder. “One in which a statue of you will take its place next to Clock Vortex.”

They looked up to the giant above them.

“You may even now be feeling the effects,” said the angel to Winchester.

The tingle became a flood, flowing up Winchester’s legs.

“There’s still time for goodbye,” said the angel.

Winchester grabbed his sondaughter’s hands. “One of the reasons I didn’t want you to become a motor-head is because I knew you could be so much more. Being a cyclosexual will let you succeed as a pilot where I’ll fail. And whether you’re a boy or girl or a giant statue watching over all motor-heads, I’ll always be proud of you.”

Varn’s arms shook as he wrapped them around his father.

Winchester continued as he felt the flood hit his spine. “Find a ship, Varn. Take Pearl to get his daughter. No father should be without his child.”

“She . . . he . . . both will always have a home with us,” said Pearl. “Once we have one again.” He gestured to the remains of the Fish around them.

The rushing sensation filled his head; his machine eye showed only static.

“Winchester!” The angel grabbed his hand and pulled him away from his sondaughter. “It’s happening!”

He watched everyone he still cared for and his younger self diminish to a point, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

Then, the smell of ozone and choking smoke filled his breath box. His living eye, wherever it was in the control room of Spaceship X, couldn’t open. He had to rely on his mechanized one. It saw the angel, standing solid and armored beside him. The ship screamed and moaned with the burning friction and disintegration of re-entry.

The angel put a hand on Winchester’s control panel. “Varn will be all right, now. You made a new history for yourself and a better future for him. I’ll stay with you to the end, Winchester.”

The ship burned like an incandescent scar across the sky.

“You . . . can call me . . . Winnie, now.”

                        end

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.

###

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.

Night Shift

by Jack Neel Waddell

Three thoughts crowded at the door of my waking mind. First was that the sun was streaming through a skylight above me. Second was that my alarm hadn’t gone off.  Third was that I had woken, yet again, in a room I didn’t recognize.

Pink silken sheets cocooned me in a circular bed as it hovered gently beneath the congruent skylight.  I shielded my face with my arm as the rotation of the bed brought me into the glare of a sunbeam.

No alarm meant no phone. I needed to find out what time it was. It was hard to tell from the sunlight stabbing inward.  It couldn’t be past eight, right? Eight thirty? I’d be late, but not unforgivably late. I could skip a shower. Although I could feel and smell the sex on me from the night before, it was better than being too late. It would help if I could call ahead.

The floor was only a few feet down and cushioned with a thickly napped carpet of vacillating colors. I slipped, naked, from the covering sheets to search for my clothes or, better, my phone.

The carpet went with the domed walls, which were painted in all jewel-toned hues with garish block graphics that tapered up to the skylight. It was exactly what I’d expect from a nocturn. The walls were if anything outdone by the shifting harlequin of the billowing pants I found under the bed, the closest to my own I was likely to find.  At least I could be sure they would fit, albeit loosely.  There were no pockets for a phone.

I rehearsed the conversation I would probably have with my captain about being late.

The only respite from the walls were a wardrobe, a staid bronze-stained wooden casement with double doors, and a door hanging half-open to a tiny bathroom.  I had to hunt for the handplate to command a door to slide open for my escape from the bedroom.

I stepped out into a placid living room.  Music played gently from an unseen source, and some dish clattered around the corner.  The smell of a cinnamon tea and baking bread lifted my spirits a bit.

“Hey there, sleepyhead,” said a voice like a tinkling bell.

I hadn’t yet noticed my headache. Now it oozed out like the yolk of a poached egg. The room spun a little, and I wondered if the bed had really been rotating.

A woman stepped out, tall and athletic, skin as pale as a pigeon’s egg. Just the sort that Ritter would go for. She looked concerned.

“Maybe you should sit down.”

I folded onto the arm of a comfortingly tea-brown couch. The room steadied a bit.

She folded her arms over her chest and grimaced sympathetically.  “I’m Masy, by the way.”

I nodded, and introduced myself. “Jomo.”

“What were those two up to, huh?  You still feel woozy, too, right?”

She was too cheerful, like our alturns were nothing but rambunctious teenagers. I could feel my pulse rising in my neck.

“Have you seen a phone?” I asked.

Masy frowned as she walked back to the kitchen, “Sorry, hon, but my alturn had something to say about it.”

She grabbed a phone from the counter — ringed in a ruby case, it clearly wasn’t mine — and thumbed it on.

She read, “‘Hey, Sunshine!’ She calls me Sunshine, isn’t that cute? ‘What a hottie, right? We had a great time. Take it easy today! Anyway, Ritter says that he is super sorry about his phone, but he lost it. Tell the guy, will you? He said he’d buy a new one, one of those new Jupiters. Can you imagine?'”

A pit opened underneath me. I got dizzy again.

“See? Don’t worry. You’re getting a new awesome phone!”

An oven door squealed twice, then clanged.

“What time is it?” I managed to say.

“It’s only ten.”

#

“Officer Ngilu, it’s about damn time.’

I ducked my head. It was ten-thirty by the time I made it to the station and changed into an appropriate daylight outfit I kept there. My first assignment was on the outskirts of Urbana. I took a carriage, and drummed my impatience into the dashboard as the bullet-shaped car slid into line and joined the train of other travelers to the suburbs.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” I said, jogging up the stepping-stone path to the front door of the residential house. Each step jarred my hungover brain. “It’s my alturn.”

Lieutenant Hernandez waved away my explanation with a toss of his cigarette-laden hand. “You beg for these cases and then leave me waiting. Next time I won’t take an excuse.”

I nodded again and slipped inside.

A whole house was an extravagant expense, unless you shared it with your alturn. What good was a half-time house? Usually it meant children.

This one was a spacious ranch. The living room opened into the dining room and galley kitchen.  A small bedroom, decorated in pink and unicorns, spurred off there.  Deeper inside was a master suite, decorated in the dark, flat colors of a diurn’s preference.  A den in the back left the house feeling lopsided.

A short officer named Fennel in blue paper booties showed me why.

The officer frowned at my feet first, sending a wave of heat to my face.  It was a stupid mistake for a forensics officer to make.  I grabbed a pair of booties from a box by the back door and slid them on.

We went through the hall closet, through a door hinged onto the back. The room on the other side was small and stark, a square perhaps seven feet to a side. The walls and floor were all covered with a medium density foamboard that gave way slightly underfoot.  A mattress lined one wall. A bucket sat in each corner of the opposite side – one held clean water. The other, with a plastic lid, was used as a chamber pot.

“Sweep it for prints,” Fennel said. “I’ll bet anything there’s only one set.”

I half hated her for getting ahead of me. Of course there would be only one. This room was designed for imprisoning alturns. The fact that it was open during the day told the story of which alturn was getting locked away.

I turned back to the lock. There were trails in my vision as I turned too fast. I closed my eyes for a moment, then walked back to the closet door. There’d be either a combination lock, or a lock set on a timer.

I couldn’t believe my luck at landing in an alturn apprehension case.  This was exactly the kind of case I wanted to handle, just the unit I wanted to work in when I made detective one day.

“Who called it in?” I asked, poking at the lock. It was a push-button combination.

“The daughter, who just Schismed. The new diurn side didn’t like what was happening, so she called it in when her pappy went into the box just before sundown.”

I pulled on the wheel, feeling a little slop, then proceeded to push on the buttons in order. When I came to the three I felt a nudge in the wheel.  I felt the same with the five, the six, and the eight. There were twenty-four arrangements of those four numbers, but it only took a few minutes before I hit the right combination – five three eight six.  The wheel turned and three bolts emerged into empty space. Had the door been shut, they would have locked into the door frame.

Fennel grunted approval. I felt a wave of pride. Even hungover and still in the aftereffects of whatever drug Ritter had put into our body late into the evening, I could put together clues and solve puzzles. I could make contributions to the team. Maybe I could retake the detective exam at the end of the year.

“Blinking God, Jomo,” Fennel said, “where are your gloves?”

I had them on, didn’t I? I looked at my hands, willing them to be covered in purple vinyl. I remembered tugging on the paper shoe covers. The gloves were right there.

“What’s this?” Lieutenant Hernandez stepped into the room. “Ngilu, are you contaminating my crime scene?”

My throat seemed to close. “Sir, I-“

He grabbed my hands and pulled them off the wheel.

“Late and interfering with evidence.  Is there a reason you’d want your prints to appear at this scene, Ngilu?”

He dropped my hands and sighed. “I’m tired of this. You’re good when you’re sober, but we can’t count on that, can we? I’m recommending to the captain that you be terminated.”

#

“Are you still whining about that?”

The voice was nearly my own, but I felt my tongue raise, seeming to push my voice up and back. It was nasal and throaty at the same time, in the fashion of the nocturns. It always put me in the mind of films of gangsters from the previous century.

“Mr. Ritter,” said Dr. Kajin, “that’s not sympathetic. Please consider Jomo’s concerns.”

“Fine,” he said.

Something switched in the circuit fixed to my head, and my voice was my own again.  “I know it doesn’t mean much to you, but my job is important.  It’s how I pay for food and rent. And it makes me feel like I’m doing something important.”

The secret thing switched again. I felt like I was trapped in a glass room in my mind. I could see the world and hear my thoughts, but I could not touch the places that gave them voice.  I couldn’t speak, and Ritter didn’t bother.

“Please, Mr. Ritter,” Dr. Kajin said. “Jomo is spending his precious money and daylight for this conversation. The least you could do is communicate.”

“I said I’d pay, and I meant it. I’ll set him up with an apartment, with a credit account at the grocer.  I don’t see what the problem is.”

Dr. Kajin closed his eyes. I wasn’t sure whether Ritter could see through our shared eyes.  Ritter had never summoned me in the darkened hours with a mediator. When Ritter lived, I only slept dreamlessly.

“Will you accept this compromise, Jomo?” Kajin asked. He pressed the button, toggling who could steer the body’s tongue.

I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have an apartment, only a transition room. I would need somewhere to stay in the day, a base of operations for my job search. I needed food until then.

Not that I would starve. No matter how hungry I got during the day, Ritter would eat like a king when the sun fell. Hunger wouldn’t mar his hours.

But I couldn’t bear to depend on Ritter and his money. Her money, really, Ritter’s mother’s. I clenched my jaw at the thought — I wondered what showed on Dr. Kajin’s instruments then.

“No. I will find my own way.”

#

I kicked the door just at the deadbolt.  It took two kicks to splinter the frame. I felt a twinge of gratitude that Ritter spent so much time in the gym, even if it was only for his own vanity.

Tweakers and hookers went scrambling for the front door or windows.  I glanced for weapons, but only saw the backs of the users.  Manuel, the only one sitting still in the storm of fleeing bodies, leaned back into his easy chair, both hands visible on the armrests.

He couldn’t know that I didn’t have a gun. Every time this scene had played about before, I had been armed, with backup on call.

“Officer Ngilu,” Manuel said.  “A pleasure to see you again.”

I eyed the room, just as I would if I were here for a bust. Bottles were strewn between beanbag mattresses. A few stood upright, their contents not quite spent. A few needles laid on the floor or stuck into the armrests of couches too ratty even for a fraternity’s porch.

“Of course,” Manuel continued, “it would be my pleasure to see your warrant.”

Manual’s speech was slurred slightly and his sunken eyes looked a little glassy, likely due to the unlabeled bottle standing beside his chair, but his wits remained sharp.

I waved away the words. I walked to the bedroom and flung the door open.  There was more scampering and the shattering of glass. Manuel winced behind me.

I pulled open a closet door to see a teenage boy, painfully young to be in a dive like this. I grabbed his arm and hauled him to the front door.

“Your warrant, officer?” Manuel repeated. “Or should I call the department?”

I listened for a moment. It seemed quiet.  It seemed empty.

“There’s no warrant, Manuel.  And I’m no longer an officer.”

Manuel’s eyes squinted nearly closed. With his sunken eyes and gaunt face, he looked like a viper ready to strike.  What might be tucked into the chair’s cushions?

“I’m here to buy.”

Manuel shrugged with upturned hands.  “Buy what, officer? I was merely hosting a party for my friends.”

His tone had changed, though. He was no longer slick, he was obsequious.  He was mocking me.

I charged him. Manuel could barely raise his hands before I clutched his elbows and pulled him into the air. Whatever disease had run through the man in childhood had left him short and thin. With the bulk Ritter had built in our body, it was easier than lifting that boy from the closet.

Manuel’s eyes showed nothing.  I dropped him to the floor. At least he was away from the chair.

“Either that was police brutality, or merely assault,” Manuel said, getting to his knees. “What do you need?”

“Phase,” I said. There. The word was out there, hanging between us, heard by whomever was there to hear it.

Manuel looked up at me.  “I don’t have any.” His voice was as cold as his eyes.

“But you know where it can be found.”

“No.” He was on his feet now.  “Get out.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t help you. I wouldn’t if I could.  That is an evil thing, against all God’s order.”

Briefly, I felt the lack of the Woken God’s medallion on my chest. I shut it from my mind.

“You sell drugs in the daylight.”

Manuel shrugged. “Perhaps even God needs to daydream.  Drugs and sex are not against His order, only against his schedule. What you seek undermines His creation.”

“Perhaps, but there is worse evil to defeat with it.”

Manuel cocked his head to the side, squinting, considering.

“Body thieves,” I said, when Manuel would not speak.

Manuel motioned for me to continue.

I closed my eyes for a moment, then let my secret out into the air. “My mother is a victim.  Her alturn flies from Amundsen-Scott to Saint Nick’s every six months on a corkscrew flight that avoids the daylight. My mother hasn’t woken in the sun for over a decade.”

Manuel shook his head. His voice, when he spoke, was sympathetic.  “You cannot fight them, Mr. Ngilu. Not the big people with all the money. They have all the laws, all the police.”

“I must try. I have nothing else.”

He stared at me for a long moment then, reluctantly, he nodded.  “It will take time, and a lot of cash.”

#

In the end, it took three days, and all the cash I could scrape together.  I had sold my lease at my transition house immediately. My carriage pre-paid card went fast, but I was still disheartened when I took my scant possessions from my closet and safe to a pawnbroker.  I didn’t eat during my days — I let Ritter handle that — and I started each dusk at a park bench.

That was risky. A quick-waking nocturn mugger could have gotten the drop on Ritter before he stirred. But Ritter wouldn’t have had anything for a thief to take, except maybe a phone that he could easily replace.  Twenty years ago he would have carried a wallet with two sleeves, one for each alturn, but fortunately technology had advanced to biometrics and PINs.  Too many alturns had broken faith with their counterparts, taking cash and using their cards on overseas purchases.

After three days of living slim, pulling odd jobs where I could for every penny, it was time.

“It’s not enough,” Manuel said, when I showed him the cash I had scraped together.

“It will be. It must.”

Manuel frowned, but led me through the footpaths that gridded the city center. Between them, city-owned engines pulled ad hoc trains of commuter carriages on steel rails to the silver skyscrapers that reflected the morning sun into my eyes. I squinted into the light, fighting a headache.

I watched Manuel carefully, and his surroundings too. Despite Manuel’s surprising faith in the Woken God, he was still a crook. He pimped, he dealt. On two occasions I had busted him with stolen goods in his apartment, though he’d always claimed they had been brought by his “guests.”

The Woken God needed people like me to guard the world against people like Manuel. And that’s what I had done, until Ritter had pushed me too far.

My anger quickened my steps.  Perhaps subconsciously, Manuel sped up.

We met our guide in the pantry of a mid-tier restaurant. She was short and light-skinned, dressed in simple but clean clothing. Her head jutted too far forward, so that her back hunched slightly, but she didn’t look like a crook.

She took my name and alturn registration number and typed both sloppily on a note in her phone .  She grabbed the money and, with a practiced look, riffled the edge of the bills.  With a satisfied face, she tucked the cash into her blouse, either into a pocket or her bra.

“Are you wired?” she asked. She clipped her words like they were pressed out of a letter-cutter.

I shook my head, but she waved at a steel door.  “In here.”

In the freezer, with the door closed, she took my phone and waved some sort detector over me, much like the wands security personnel used instead of a frisk.  This one was wired to a box on her belt, covered in dials and lights.  She adjusted a knob and waved the wand over me again.

“Alright.  You have to leave the phone, though.”

“What? Where are we going? Don’t you have the Phase with you?”

She gave me a piercing look. “Comments like that are why people might think you’re wired.  There’s no Phase here.  Leave your phone.”

“I need my phone.”

“Give it to him,” she said, pointing through the freezer door window at Manuel.

I sighed. My last belonging, the new Jupiter that Ritter had purchased.  I tapped at it, erasing my local profile and locking it down.

She banged on the door with the heel of the wand. Manuel hauled it open.

“He’s good. You’ll get your finder’s fee.  Hold his phone for him.”

She shouldered past him and I had to hurry to keep up, pausing only long enough to press the Jupiter into Manuel’s hand.

I noticed as I moved past that Manuel clutched a necklace in his other hand. As I followed the nameless woman out the back door, a psalm of the Woken God followed, winged from Manuel’s lips.

#

She led me through the alley to an adjacent street. Three Windsprint bullet-shaped carriages waited in a line at the roadside.  The woman pulled out a prepaid card, rather than a phone, and waved it at the access scanner.  The passenger door scissored up to open, and she reached in to hit a button so the back door opened, too.

I took the hint and slid on the fabric seat and strapped myself in.  The woman tapped on the dashboard until the carriage rolled out.

“Where are we going?” I tried.  The woman kept her steely silence.

I wondered why she wasn’t worried. She had my money, but we were alone, and she had already set the destination.  If I were the wrong sort of person, I could surely take her out, take back my money, and possibly find out where the dealers were.

She wasn’t worried, which worried me.

What would Phase be? I wished she had just brought it. Whether it was in a pill or needle, I wished to get it over with while my will held out.  The Eye of the Woken God gleamed in the western sky, staring down at His creation and judging it. I had never had a drink, never taken a pill that wasn’t medicine. Even then, the doctor had to order me to take it.

The carriage quickly forked away from the spires of downtown and joined an ad hoc chain sloughing towards the wharfs of the bay.  The other carriages tended to be beefier, carrying cargo as often as passengers.

The woman tapped at her phone, nose jutted forward, birdlike, so I nearly expected her to tap at it with her nose. She only spoke when their carriage disengaged from the chain and sidled up to a row of rectangular cargo containers, each larger than the room I had recently rented.

“Watch your step,” she said as she climbed out.

The dock was wet and slick with algae, which seemed like a hazard.  Perhaps this section of the wharf was seldom used.

The woman passed the first container and knocked on the second, a forest-green one with an eight-digit ID number that I tried and failed to memorize.  The door cracked open, and we both squeezed through.

In addition to the woman, there were three men in the space. One closed the door behind me, even as I stepped back toward the wall. Two more stood on either side of a deeply reclining chair, a chair that seemed quite familiar.

Then it became clear. Of course Phase would be similar to the transcranial stimulation that a mediator performed, but somehow more persistent.

“Mr. Ngilu,” said one of the men. This one wore a lab coat and stood closest to me by the chair.  He was nearly bald, though pale stubble grew in a halo around his crown.  “It is a pleasure. Please be at ease.”

The man by the door took a stance like a soldier at parade rest, arms behind his back. He looked straight forward, apparently at nothing.  The woman had joined the third man, and was showing him her phone and whispering.

I should have told someone where I was going, someone besides Manuel.  I wished I had my gun, or at least my phone.  I found myself clutching at my shirt, at the missing medallion of the Eye of the Woken God.

There was no way but forward, so I stepped forward, extending a hand to the man in the white coat. “Yes, Mr…”

“Doctor, please.  Doctor will suffice.  Please, have a seat.”

I pushed down a spike of anxiety and laid out on the chair. The doctor took the transcranial mesh cap and affixed it to my head. The tiny metal studs felt colder and sharper than they should pressed against my scalp.

The doctor pulled out a rubber strap and wrapped it tightly around my arm.

“What’s this?”

The doctor pulled over an IV stand.  “These will be necessary for the transition to take place.”

Coldness clawed at my chest, but this was just one more boundary I would cross. I nodded, and the doctor stabbed his needle into my arm and released the band.  Then he injected something into the IV port at the top.

Finally, the woman came back around into view. “Mr. Ngilu, we need to talk about the details of our arrangement.”

“We’ve made our arrangement.” My words were syrupy in my mouth. I tried to sit up, to confront her, but she leaned down and pinned me using just her left hand.  “I paid you.”

She nodded, spilling hair across her face. She let it lie.  “And that is what got you this far.  This is an expensive procedure, Mr. Ngilu. The doctor’s expertise does not come cheaply, and neither does the equipment.”

I tried to grab her arm, but missed.

“Be still, now,” said the doctor, “you’ll disturb the IV.” He grabbed my hand and strapped it down, then walked around to my left and strapped that one down as well.

No one would have any idea where to look for me.  I wondered who would end up with my case.

“I gave you eight thousand. I don’t have any more money.”

“No,” the woman said, raising up and letting her hand drop from his chest.  “But Mr. Ritter does.”

“But how could he…” I started, but then my drug-muddled brain caught up. “You want me to give you his money.”

I closed my eyes. It was easy, with the drugs in my veins. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”

“No matter. If you want to Phase shift, you’ll do it.”

“How much?” I asked, eyes opened. She would have already done the calculation. The time in the carriage she used to research me and Ritter. What would have happened if Ritter had been a garbage man, or a county clerk? Would I have simply been dropped into the Bay, or would the eight thousand have been enough?

“Sixty.”

I tried to keep my face impassive, but I couldn’t be sure how much control I had. Sixty thousand. Ritter should have that much and more at his disposal, given to him by his mother. They wouldn’t even notice that much missing.

“Fine. How long do I have?”

“Just tonight. How do you think this works?”

“I have no idea.”

“I suppose I can enlighten you,” said the doctor, stepping forward. He had another needle, this one filled with a fluid that was antifreeze-green, which he shot into the port in the IV.

“We are going to hyperactivate your network, the network for your diurn personality. The mesh-net on your head and the drugs we are administering maintain the diurn network’s stimulation for at least twelve hours, enough to last through the nighttime hours. Another cocktail of drugs will inhibit your nocturn’s network through the night, when your normal circadian rhythm and the absence of solar rays would normally activate it.”

“Tonight.  I’ve only got tonight to get you sixty grand and what I was planning.”

The woman snapped her fingers in front of my eyes, forcing me to focus on them, then drew my gaze to her.  “Do you have another choice, Mr. Ngilu?  It is a little late to back out.”

The third man, so far unacknowledged, shifted into view. It was impossible to tell his build beneath the creases of his gray suit, but he moved with the smooth assurance of a dangerous man.

“Mr. Tian will make sure that nothing prevents you from accomplishing your goals.”

Tian nodded.  “I would shake your hand, but…” he indicated the straps.  Then he took a seat at the far end of the shipping container, looking at me.

The world was getting distant, and I struggled to keep his eyes open. Outside, the Eye of the Woken God was surely closing at the horizon.

“Good bye, Mr. Ngilu,” said the woman.  “I hope our business will be concluded satisfactorily for all.”

The doctor followed her, and I heard the door slide open, then shut.  Tian stayed seated where he was, though after a few moments he reached down and lifted a briefcase to his knees. He snapped it open and pulled out a large sketchbook and a few pencils.

“Do you mind, Ngilu?”

I grunted noncommittally, confused as to what he was doing. Tian took this as an affirmative and began to draw, lifting his eyes toward me every few moments. The scratching of the pencils only accentuated the remaining silence.

Tian did not sleep. Neither did I, not even when enough time had passed that I was sure the Sun had drooped behind the edge of the world. My thoughts drifted dizzily, dreamily, but consciousness never fully left me.

I snapped to attention when Tian stood suddenly and approached me, holding the sketchbook and pencils in one hand.  With the other, he tugged the straps away from my arms, then rudely yanked the IV needles from my arm. I swallowed my protest.  Tian grabbed a bandage for my arm and tossed it to me, but I was too foggy to catch it. Fortunately, it landed on my chest.

“Your head should begin to clear now, Ngilu.”

I nodded.

Tian tore a page from the sketchbook and handed it to me.  It was a good likeness, but I seemed sad.

Tian opened the door, confirming my instincts.  It was fully dark.

“You had better hurry. Caffeine will help the fogginess.”

“Can you arrange a carriage?” I pulled the TMS cap and stood. “I sold my subscription.”

He shook his head.  “You are on your own.  At least until it is time to settle. My advice to you? Don’t fail. This wharf has swallowed more than one that has disappointed her.”

“What should I call her?”

“Don’t. But her name is Lafferty.”

##

The last time I had seen the stars, I was ten years old, before our Schism.  I could barely see them now, now a couple of faint points striving behind the streetlights. They must have been the brightest, I supposed, maybe planets.  I wondered if Dreamers knew these things.

I walked out to the street.  A middle aged man climbed out of a carriage, late for work, unshaved. He frowned at me as he passed.  Most of the nightshift workers would have been delivered by their carriages during twilight. His diurn must be selfish.

The carriages wouldn’t take me without a phone, and Tian had left me alone for whatever purpose he had.

I walked at a quick pace, first at a sharp angle away from the docks, then along the downtown streets toward where I had left my phone.

Ritter’s phone.  That was key to all of this.  The woman had been foolish to make me part with it so thoroughly.  It would cost me much of the night just to get it. Surely she knew that.

The realization struck me like sour milk in my tea.  She did know it. This was the game, to waste my time so that I am unable to finish my own mission. Perhaps I was even meant to fail hers. Either way, I would be beholden to try again.

A group of teenagers boiled out of a large black carriage, already exchanging puffs on a long silver pipe. I found myself clutching at the empty space at my chest, but the bronze eye no longer hung there.

One of them, a girl with pink feathers in her hair and a taffeta drees, caught my gaze. She nudged the bruiser next to her, though I couldn’t take him seriously in parachute pants and a cape.  Still, the boy pointed the silver pipe at me and laughed as I turned down an alley.

Everything about me was wrong in the night. The way I dressed. The way I walked. Even, should I get to that point, the way I spoke. I was a Worker, not a Dreamer, and the difference was clear.

I practiced my night walk down the alley — leaned back, languidly pushing my feet forward. It was hard to say if I was making a farce of it, or if it looked authentic. I tried to just not fall over. I had hoped that my body would remember the motions, but the network in my brain must not be firing right for that to take over.

Finally, I could wait no more. My clothes were still wrong as I went out the back of the alley onto the next street, but my walk, I could hope, was closer to a Dreamer’s lazy-looking mosey.

There were just as many clubs and bars on the next street over, and people were beginning to fill them in. I passed a pair of men, tightly holding hands, laughing with one another. One raised an eyebrow at me and opened his mouth, but the other man slapped his shoulder with his free hand and said, “Oh, hush,” in that Dreamer’s voice. Still, they laughed together after they passed me.

#

Manuel’s apartment was lit up when I arrived, but that could have meant anything. I had no idea whether the individual squatting there would be Manuel’s alturn, or would even know who I was talking about.

At first, I was surprised that my legs weren’t tired or sore from the unfamiliar walk, but then I recalled that it isn’t unfamiliar to them. Just me.

I knocked on the door. The windows, just as in the daytime, were covered over. I hoped there would be no illicit activity. Then I remembered — the laws at night are much more libertine. Very few drugs were illegal while God and children slept.

After some moments, the door opened. A nun stood there, draped in a white habit with a silvery disk of the closed eye of the Dreaming God hanging on a chain on her chest.

I peeked past her into the room. Men and women lay on cots and couches.

She sees me frown. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Yes, Sister.” Then I realize how odd my story will sound. How would a diurn get ahold of a nocturn’s clothes? Especially a nocturne still dressed as a diurn?  Sure she’d see through me, I went on.

“A diurn named Manuel has my phone.”

I forgot my voice. Her back stiffens. “Yes. He left it here, with a note that said you’d be here for it. But I won’t give it to you.”

She began to close the door, but I stepped forward to block it with my foot. Some of the people inside turn to look.

“It is an evil thing you deal with,” she continued. “If I knew your name I would report you. Leave now before I call the police.”

Even the night police would respond to Phase. I considered pulling away, but who knew what Tian and the woman will do to me if I fail to deliver? I needed the phone.

“Who is Manuel to you?”

Her lips tightened, but the answer was clear on her face. Her small frame and short stature were familiar. Her eyes were the same hooded portals that sat in Manuel’s face. She could be his sister, but I knew better.

I pushed the door open, forcing her back. A large man on a cot stirred, but he was too weak to me — whether from drugs or from illness, I couldn’t tell.

“I’m calling the police,” she warned.

“I’ll tell everyone.”

“It is not a grave thing amongst the Dreamers.  Gender is fluid under the Sleeping God, which I’m sure you do not know.”

I nodded.  “But not among the Woken. What will Manuel’s clients think? Or his neighbors?”

Her lips withered as though she would spit if she weren’t in her own home.  I sickened even myself, but I kept my face impassive.

She reached into the pocket of her draped robe and pulled out a Jupiter. She looked at it again, then handed it to me.

“Leave, disgusting creature.”

I stepped through the door, letting one heel keep the door from slamming shut behind me.  “For what it is worth, I’m sorry.”

Now she did spit through the door, just missing my leg.

“May Nightmares stalk you.”

#

Ritter’s phone took only a thumbprint to unlock. As I sat on a darkened curb a few blocks distant I poked through his screens, trying to find anything that would help. Mercury, his banking app, took more than a thumbprint — I’d need a PIN, and nothing on the fresh screen surface clued me into what the sequence could be.

I knew Ritter lived on Bayfront, in an upscale complex. I read through texts, trying to find an apartment number, but nothing came to the forefront.

“How goes the search?”

The voice came from the deeper shadows. I was light-blinded by the bright screen, but I needn’t turn to know it was Tian.  Was he the Nightmare with which the sister had cursed me?

“I have a plan,” I lied.

He grunted, and now I did turn. He held a true cigarette, burning against the dark of the night, between his lips. No vaporizer or pipe. How much must that have cost? His clothing, which I could barely see, was now appropriate to the night — a patchwork of jewel-toned colors.

“Why does she want me to fail, Tian?”

He puffed a large cloud into the sky. “She keeps no counsel with me. I’m am just her strong arm.”

“But you know.”

“You seem smart.” The glowing ember at the end of the stick brightened as he pulled on it.

“To hook me for more. I fail to get sixty. She threatens to kill me. I promise more, perhaps a hundred. I am strung along, bringing in ten or twenty thousand at a time, perhaps, until I’m caught or cut loose.”

He grunted again, something unreadable. “Well, if that’s a fate you want to avoid, you’d better get moving.”

It was midnight already.

#

Bayfront was an easier journey than Manuel’s apartment had been, because the phone meant a carriage subscription. For a short ride they only needed a thumb print to authorize against the phone’s credentials. Tian traveled with me in silence.

Bayfront was one of the rare establishments in the city that believed in truth in advertising.  The towering expanse of the edifice overlooked the bay from the north, a quarter turn around the bay from where I had visited the wharf earlier. From here the view of the beach was unmarred. A private marina was set a length away, judged to be the optimal distance for convenience and beauty.

The building itself had a marbled look. In the night, I couldn’t make out the colors, if any.

“How will you make it in?” Tian asked.

“I can’t do this with you following me around,” I said. “You took off earlier. Can’t you do that again?”

He gave me a long look from under his heavy lids. I returned it the best I could. He wasn’t about to shank me on this street.

“Fine. But, here—”

He reached into my jacket’s inner pocket and pulled out my phone. He tapped it with his own so that they exchanged contact information. Then he tucked the phone back in my pocket.

“I’ll be in touch. Don’t try to dodge me.”

It had taken an hour to get to Ritter’s, and I wasn’t even inside yet. I didn’t know his apartment number, or even the floor. I didn’t know how to get in when I got there. I didn’t know if any of that would help me get the money from his bank. All in all, a shaky start for an improvised heist.

I walked toward the main doors. Behind them, a long curved desk stood sentinel, manned by a solitary woman with close-cropped hair and a harlequin-colored dress that draped from her shoulders.  Behind her were the elevators to the towers of apartments.

The hostess waved at me through the glass. My face burned for a moment — I had nothing to say to her. Would Ritter know her name? How would he act toward a hostess?

I fished my phone back from my pocket and acted out an urgent call, turning my back on the door. Ritter’s apartment was the best place to look for the code I’d need to withdraw a large sum of money. There had to be a way to find it.

I looked down at our phone and thumbed it on. With a few quick flicks I found Ritter’s list of nightly calls. Near the most frequent was a man named Nylan. The picture in the profile was a pale-faced man with slicked back frosty-blue hair. He had a sharp nose and high brows.

I took a deep breath and dialed.

“Ritter,” came the voice over the phone, pinched high and back.  “How are you, my dear?”

I tried to remember what it felt like when Ritter spoke in the mediator’s office, with my tongue pressed toward the roof of my mouth.

“Wonderful, and you?” I bleated.

“Are you ok? You sound dreadful.”

I closed my eyes. I couldn’t pull this off on the fly. Nylan would see through this even over the phone. But an idea struck me.

“Tip top,” I said in my own voice. “Couldn’t be better.”

“Oh! That’s marvelous! What an impersonation! Who are you doing? No, don’t tell me. Roxbey Stewart?”

I thought I recognized the name as a Dreamer actor.

“Spot on, don’t you think?”

“It’s wonderful. Now, to what do I owe the honor this evening?”

I needed Nylan to show me Ritter’s room. How?

“A party. At mine, tonight,” I said. “Dress like it’s daylight.”

“A Woken party! Oh, I love it!” He slowed his voice, dropped it low and throaty. “I’ll see if my alturn has anything I could borrow. Oh, you have the best ideas. I’ll be there in an hour.”

The Jupiter in my pocket guided me to the nearest tox store. I had never been inside one, never even seen one open. Bottles, mostly clear or amber, lined the shelves inscrutably. Powders hung in plastic bags. Balsa boxes advertised the tobacco and marijuana for pipes that hid inside.

I wasn’t the only customer. Kaleidoscope robes hung off the shoulders of young folk filling their baskets with bottles. An old couple, too hunched over to shuffle like the Dreamers I’m used to, browsed cassettes filled with pills.

“You look a little lost.”

I looked over my shoulder to see a young woman, wearing an uncharacteristically binding wrap for a Dreamer.  She smiled.

I remembered to smile back. Ritter would have had something charming to say. He was somewhere in this brain, some other subnetwork of neurons. If only I could access a fraction, to gain his skill and knowledge, but to leave him floating in the unconscious dark.

I should have sent her away. I couldn’t afford to raise suspicions.  But a skeptical stranger would be better than a gaffe among Ritter’s friends.

“Uh, yeah,” I managed, trying nasal tones as I turned toward her. “I’m having a little get together, and I’m not sure what to serve.”

“How formal?”

“Costume,” I said, spreading my arms in my Woken clothing.

She put her hand to her forehead. “Of course. I was wondering. Well, let’s see what we can put together for you.”

Yerra, as it turned out she was named, guided me.  Every bottle felt like a sin, every pill a betrayal against the Woken God. But I had already betrayed Him by being here when the sun had set, and while He slumbered these things were reckoned no sin. Still, I had to swallow my guilt as I lugged the box Yerra had provided me to the counter.

A thumbprint on the Jupiter transferred the funds, but just barely.  A few bottles more and the price would have crossed the threshold needing PIN confirmation.

“Need a hand with that?” Yerra leaned against the counter, swiping her phone over the scanner to pay for a demure azure bottle.

Ritter would know what to say. Of course, Ritter would want her in his bed. My instincts were not so finely honed as his, but even I felt like that was what she was after as well.

I could barely keep the box in my arms.  What I needed is to know whether this woman could help me find Ritter’s PIN.  If she could, I didn’t see it.

“No thanks,” The bottles rattled as I shifted the weight. “I can manage.”

“Oh. Sure.”

I could barely carry the box back to the apartment.  I stopped half a dozen times to set it down and adjust my grip. But gradually, huffing through the streets, I approach Ritter’s apartment building.

“Ritter, dear!” A man approached in a long gray coat hanging to his knees. He had dark hair over high brows.  It was the man from the phone, Nylan, though he had changed his hair.

“Can I help you with the box?” he asked as he came close. His voice was still pitched high.

“No, thank you.”

“Oh, still so marvelous! When have you practiced?” He didn’t pause. “What do you think of my outfit? I mustn’t soil it, my altun would be so miffed.”

I began to walk toward the glass doors of the apartment. Nylan followed.  “You won’t believe who’s coming.” He rattled off a list, too fast and too long to follow. Ritter’s social circle had a wide radius.

Nylan held the door open as I passed through it. We both nodded to the woman at the desk, who smiled at our costumes.

“We’re having a little get together tonight,” I say in my own voice.

“Isn’t he tremendous?” Nylan adds. “He should go on Star Seekers.”

“I’ll have them ring you, Mr. Ritter. You can buzz them up.”

“Thank you.”

I walked beside Nylan to the elevators, carefully watching which way he went, acting as though I knew as well.

We got in an elevator, and I let Nylan choose the floor. Twenty-seventh out of thirty-six. As we ascended he listed the roll of invitees.

My plan was working so far. Nylan led me to my apartment door halfway down the gray-green stone-tiled hall. A sleek keypad guarded the door.

I waited a moment, hoping Nylan would offer to press the code. Did Ritter trust his friends with it? I supposed not, when Nylan kept quiet.

“Can you hold these?” I asked, knowing I could have put them on the floor. But I wanted Nylan distracted for a moment.

The buttons, thank God, had not been wiped regularly. The slight grimy buildup of repeated finger punches showed the most on the two, then the one, then the seven, followed finally by the six.  I pressed the numbers in that order and the screen flashed green.

I led Nylan through the door as it slid open.  Could I be lucky enough for the PIN to be the same? I needed time to check.

#

Ritter’s apartment, I wasn’t surprised to learn, was palatial. At least by my standards. The foyer opened into a wide expanse, richly carpeted in shocking white. To the left, couches and chairs angled toward one another and toward a large screen on the wall. Immediately ahead of the door, a dozen wooden chairs surrounded a wood and glass dining table. To the right was a galley kitchen, open to the entertainment space through a long counter.  It was here that Nylan delivered the box.

“I’ll be back,” I told him as I took off down the hallway to the right.  The first door was a bathroom. Then a bedroom with a decadently large bed piled high with cushions. The final door, locked with a handprint, led to an office.

I sat down with the Jupiter and opened Mercury. 2176 failed to unlock the app. I began to dig through drawers, searching papers or notes for codes.

There was a knock on the door. “Ritter?” Nylan’s voice was high and nasal, but pitched with concern.

“Just a minute,” I said in my own voice, since I couldn’t mimic Ritter’s.  “Have to find something.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then, “Ok, dear. Hurry. Guests are arriving.”

I pulled open a cabinet and flipped through the files. One was labeled “Documents.”

Inside were a passport, a birth certificate, and so forth.

I opened Mercury again and clicked “Forgot my PIN.”

Questions came up. Full name. Date of Birth. Alturn registration number. Mother’s alturn name. Thumb print and retinal scan. Between what I knew, what I had, and what was in the files, I entered everything.

Finally: Choose a new PIN.

Why not 2176?

There, spilling out electronically before me, was all of Ritter’s allowances. All twenty grand of it, only a third of what I owed Lafferty.

My first instinct was to look around the room, as though I would find Tian standing over my shoulder.

A knock at the door nearly stilled my racing heart.

“Ritter?” Nylan’s voice again. “Your guests are asking after you.”

I opened the door and pushed past him. “Finally,” he said under his breath. But I turned and pushed my way into the bedroom.

“Where—“ he started, but I shoved the door shut in his face.

Ritter’s closet was enormous, filled with a dizzying explosion of color hanging from a half dozen rods.  I found an outfit that seemed the most tailored, though it still draped off uncomfortably.

As I opened the door from the bedroom, Nylan was scowling. “Ritter,” his nasal tone pitched throatier with anger, “by the Shut Eyes of God, what is going on?”

I tried to mimic Ritter’s voice as I pushed through a gray-clad crowd toward the front door.  “I’m sorry. Something has come up. Please care for the guests.”

#

It was a little past three in the morning, and a chill was developing in the air. I hadn’t thought much about that. In the day, the heat tended to build throughout until perhaps the last hours. Obviously, with the Eye set, short of air masses moving in, it would only get colder as the night wore on.

I walked along the street, back to where the shops dotted the lane. I stepped into a café and ordered a coffee, the simplest I could find on the menu. They served it to me, steaming, in a paper cup with a lid. I sat in a quiet corner under a print of a leaning barn.

I looked through Ritter’s videos on his social media, trying to find any of himself so I could practice his voice. I found a few.  It was hard to get the sounds right – throat tight, tongue high, sliding past words at an exhausting pace. Perhaps any witnesses would think I was an actor, practicing for a role.

Every once in a while, I would get a call from Nylan or another friend.  I sent those to voicemail and continued until I felt that I had recreated the feel from the mediator’s office, like there was a snake in my throat doing all the talking.

I flicked through all the names in Ritter’s contacts – it wasn’t under Mom or Mother, but toward the beginning of the list, under Charity Ritter. I tapped the name to call it.

After only a couple of rings it cut off and went to voicemail. I tried again, with the same effect.  I put my lips to my coffee and nearly burnt them. I put the cup back down.

“You had better be hurt, Patrick. If this is about money, you’ll never see another dollar in your life. I’ve already told you to cut down on your spending.”

That voice. I hadn’t heard it in over a decade, since before my Schism, and rarely then. Charity Ritter had always been the dominant alturn, and I had thought of her as my mother, though I had been raised in the city by a nanny as Charity flew back and forth between the poles.  I would visit and, rarely, she would visit me.

After our Schism, that all changed. I was the diurn, heir to the diurn personality’s fortunes, which were essentially nothing.  I followed Ritter to prep school on the coast, where I was allowed to learn in exchange for part-time labor in the kitchen and fields. The Ritters never let me forget the gift they felt they gave me, going along for the ride, but the truth was my body was there anyway. It’s not like a carriage could have commuted between the city and the coast daily and nightly. All the alturns of the wealthy students made similar arrangements – we were the labor that kept the school going.

“Patrick?”

“Hello, Mother.”

“Are you ok? What was so urgent?”

The tinkle of the bell on the door seemed to cut through my concentration. I looked up to see Tian standing in the doorway, nearly taking up the whole width.

“I want to come see you.”

There was a sigh.

“Patrick. Can this wait? I have the flight next week, then a board meeting in two weeks, and after that-“

“Tonight. I need to come tonight.”

Tian walked to the counter and spoke to the woman there.

“Patrick, you’re scaring me. Why can’t you just get a ticket?”

Maybe I could. They didn’t explain how Phase worked. But here was my theory – once the rays of the Eye hit me, our ordinary cycle would return, and Ritter would awaken the next dusk. But what would happen if I stayed in the dark?

“I need a corkscrew flight.”

Her voice tightened. “What happened? What did Ngilu do to you?”

“Nothing, yet.” A kind of truth. “Please.”

There was a pause. “I’ll see what I can do. Keep your phone nearby.”

She hung up just as Tian sat down in front of me, sipping from his cup of iced mocha. I tried my own coffee, but it was still too hot to drink.

“This is a new look for your, Ngilu.”

I nodded and tried my Dreamer voice on him. “The finest money can buy.”

“Good!” He gave a little laugh. “You almost sound native. But speaking of money…”

I waved my hand. “You’re a Unity. I’ve only heard stories.”

He nodded.

“There are barely even any studies. No one knows why you didn’t Schism. Why work for the mob? You could do almost anything.”

He shrugged. “Ms. Lafferty came to my aid at a time of need, and she pays well.”

He stared at me, drilling through me with his eyes.

“You don’t have the money.”

“I have a start. And I can get more, if she gives me time.”

He dropped a hand below the table, his eyes still fixated on me. I could almost feel a bullet lined up with my liver. After a long moment, he shook his head.

“There’s no more money coming, is there?”

“Give me a chance to go back to the apartment. I can sell things.”

He pursed his lips.

“Come on,” he said at last, “we’re going back to the wharf.”

He stood, one hand in a pocket. In my own pocket, my Jupiter started buzzing.

“It’s Ritter’s mother. She has the money.” I dug out the phone and showed him the ID. It was her. He nodded and I answered.

“Ok, Patrick,” she said, “the plane is ready to take off in an hour. It will corkscrew ahead of dawn all the way to Saint Nick’s.”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice nearly slipping into my slow daylight drawl.

There was a bit of a pause on the line. “This had better be worth it, Patrick.”

She hung up and I tucked the phone back into my pocket.

“What was that?” Mr. Tian asked, nodding toward the door.

I didn’t move from my seat. “She has the money, but I have to go see her.”

He looked around the shop. He clearly didn’t want to talk about this here, with the other customers so near. He lifted me to my feet. Coffee nearly slopped out through the lid of the cup of my other hand.

“Let’s go talk to Ms. Lafferty.” He guided me to the door, one hand on my arm, the other in his pocket. A few café-goers looked up.

I shook my head. “I need to go. Can we just call her?”

“She does not do business over the phone.” He pulled me into the street.

Dreamers strolled and laughed in the streets, hardly giving us second glances.  He seemed to be heading for a row of carriages at the end of the lane.

“I can give a down payment.”

He grunted. “It’s not for me to say.”

“What if I gave it to you to hold?” I wasn’t subtle. “I’ve got twenty thousand I could send to you. That’d cover a lot of art supplies.”

He was silent, but his grip tightened, and I knew I blew my chance.

Tian pulled his other hand out of his pocket and reached into chest pocket for his phone to wave it at the carriage door.

“Wharf,” he said as the door scissored open.

Not a tavern or a flat, where we might meet with Lafferty and talk. He was taking me somewhere dark with deep waters that sunk secrets.

I slung the paper cup of coffee up and squeezed it until it burst into his face. It scalded my hand, and we both screamed, but he turned and covered his face, letting his phone clatter to the ground. I grabbed it and jumped into the carriage, slamming the door shut.

“Go to the airport,” I said as it slid into the lane. Green lights swirled on the screen before flashing acceptance.

I turned to see Tian standing and turning to watch my carriage link into an ad hoc train across town.  Without his phone, he had no easy way to track me, and no quick way to follow. I feared shots that didn’t come as he shrank into a dot in the mirror.

#

I wondered if Tian or Ms. Lafferty would have guessed where I was headed and cut me off, but there was no one waiting for me at the airport besides the crew of the chartered jet. We took off on schedule and fled the dawn in a curved path that took us north and west until we were well past the Artic Circle, past the terminator line where constant night ruled until the equinox dawned in just another week.

I stared at my watch, wondering if, when 8:00 a.m.came back in Urbana, I would be myself because I was the diurn and I was meant to be at that time, or because I was still the dominant neural sub-network, and there have been no disruptions to the sequence.

I supposed I would find out in twelve hours or so.

Saint Nick’s dominated the landscape, a man-made island directly centered on the geographic north pole. It was a fully equipped city, home to the wealthy nocturns in the winter and diurns in the summer, and the poorer ones that served them. All legal, because there was no wealthy opposition.

It was nearing midday, but Saint Nick’s shined their lights against the near-equinox twilight. It was a tight-packed city, with towers that rose high into the darkened sky, the best to maximize use of the shadow cast by the Earth’s bulk. Ribbons of carriages threaded through the centers, a river of light through the false mountain peaks.  But the entire city died at the edges of a circle as though it were inscribed with a compass. These, I supposed, were the limits of light and shadow where one alturn could dominate for the entirety of a half-year.

The plane landed smoothly at a runway on the far edge of the airport that skirted the outside of the inscribed line of the city.

“Patrick Ritter?” The man who came through the door as the plane landed wore a Dream conundrum – a colorful suit, but it was tightly tailored and each piece was a uniform color. A red coat over a blue suit jacket sitting atop green slacks.

I nodded and the led me to a carriage.  “Brady, sir. Your mother has arranged a room for you at the Hermes.”

“When can I see her?” I tried in my Dreamer voice. If he noticed anything wrong, he gave nothing away.

“Not today. Perhaps tomorrow or the day after.”

“The equinox is coming. She’ll have to make preparations to leave.”

He looked at me like I was a slow child. “Of course, sir. We have that well in hand.”

“I just mean, I have to speak to her before then.”

“Of course, sir,” he said again. He stood straight and waved at the open door to the carriage.

#

Tuesday passed, then Wednesday.  The Hermes was a fine hotel, perhaps the finest space I’ve ever stayed in. A huge bed dominated the room. Sleeping for hours was strange to me now, though of course I had slept as a child. I laid down when I was tired and, after long hours of dreaming, I awoke as myself. It seemed like wasted time, though in truth it took less time than I would have given Ritter through much of the year.

Other than that, I had little to occupy my time. I wandered the streets, which were swept meticulously clean of snow and debris by a host of specialty carriages and broom-wielding workers. Most of the Dreamers I passed were dressed like Brady had been. I had no other clothes than those I wore on the plane, so I bought a pair of suits like his and mixed and matched them.

I ate at the finest restaurants I could find, three times a day, rather than once.  This also seemed like a waste.  I also spent an hour or two in the gym, repaying Ritter for the one blessing he had given me, a healthy and well-maintained body.

An idea struck me, and I stopped at a tox store. What I wanted was expensive, but I had Ritter’s money to pay for it, since I had never sent it to Tian and Lafferty.  I wondered what the tox store did during the summer portion of the year, whether they put up another storefront or simply closed up shop and opened down south.

I supposed I ought to worry about Tian or Ms. Lafferty showing up and dropping me into the Arctic Ocean. They hadn’t yet followed me, though surely they would have guessed where I was. I dug out Tian’s phone.  I had taken out his battery so he couldn’t track it, but now I replaced it and turned it on.

There was no Lafferty on any contacts, but there was a frequently called number that wasn’t linked to a contact.  I checked the time, and it was shortly after sundown back home at Urbana.

I texted “Just give me time, and I can get you double.” Then I took the battery back out.

I wonder if they could track a text?

Then I realized. After sundown. There would only be one location I could be and still have control. I had just given them the clue to my location.

Thursday came. I called Charity every day. Most days it went to voicemail. Once it went to an assistant. Then came Friday.

“Patrick.” She sounded exasperated. “Can you not give me some space?”

“I need to talk to you, Mother.”

“Tomorrow. We’ll have lunch.”

Tomorrow. The day after they would depart for Amundsen-Scott for the equinox.

#

I’ve never heard of anyone using Phase like this. Not that anyone knew much about Phase. How long would it last? Forever? Could I Phase my mother, and the two of us live as Ritters for the rest of our lives?

I just wanted to talk to her again, for the first time since I was a teenager. Charity used to let her call me on equinoxes as the plane flew through daylight on the way between poles.  That stopped when she started taking exclusively corkscrew flights.

What would it be like to have her in the daylight and let the Ritters live their own lives in the night? But they weren’t content to live with their half. Ritter claimed my daylight hours with his drugs, and Charity claimed nearly all of my mother’s life.

The carriage pulled up in front of Maximillian’s International, the corporation for which Charity worked.

The receptionist gave me a tag and showed me to the elevators. Brady met me on the thirty-second floor and guided me to a waiting room outside her office.

My heart was fluttering. I had managed to fool her on the phone. How could I fool his mother in the flesh?

“Patrick.”

There she was.  I had hardly seen her in the flesh as a child – mostly on a screen. She had more lines on her face, of course, but the hardness of her eyes was still there. Her suit was colorful, but the colors coordinated — an eggplant suit jacket over a berry red shirt. She did not open her arms.

“Right this way,” she said.

I sat in her office, spacious, and in a corner.  Mostly it was packed up. Only a small tablet sat on her desk.

She sat primly and folded her hands on the desktop. “Now, what is all this about?”

A hundred things I could have said. I didn’t know how to start.

“I’m not your son,” I drawled as though the sun were overhead.

Her eyes hardened. She began to reach for her phone. I raised a hand.

“I just needed to speak to you.”

She didn’t stop, so I raised my other hand — and the needle it held — to my neck.

She hesitated, then put down the phone. “What is in the syringe?”

I shrugged. “Enough. That’s all you need to know.” In truth, I barely understood the full extent of the narcotics in the cocktail, only that the dosage would be enough that neither Ritter nor I would ever wake again. The tox store sold me whatever I wanted, provided I paid enough.

She pursed her lips, no doubt trying to decide whether I was bluffing. “What do you want? Money?”

I thought about Lafferty, either waiting for me at home or coming for me here, but I needed something else more.

“I want to talk to my mother.”

She slouched back. “Is that what this is about?”

She closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them again.  “If I do that for you, do I get my son back?”

I nodded. “We can take the daylight flight back to Urbana. You’ll be mother and I can speak with her. When night falls, Patrick will be restored.”

I had no idea if that was true, but there was no reason to clue her in.

She stared at me. “You can put that down now.”

I lowered the needle.

“I’ll agree to your plan. But you won’t like what you hear, Jomo.”

#

I half expected police to grab me in the early hours of the morning, but instead Brady came to gather my bags for the plane. The sun was just at the edge of the horizon as the carriage rolled to the airport. I wondered if the nocturns were already all asleep.

Charity was cloistered in her berth when I boarded.  I took a seat and waited as Brady closed up the plane.  Some autopilot routine kicked in and took us south, not in the corkscrew that most of the chartered jets were taking as they lifted off the ground, but straight toward Urbana.

I dozed, not the sleep of an alturn switching personalities, but the light slumber of the bored. Brady, or Joel, as the diurn was called, woke first. His phone calls home woke me, and I walked back to the sleeper berth where mother would be.

I knocked softly, then louder when there was no answer.

“Come in,” she said at last.

There was no mistaking this woman, Mwende, for Charity. They had the same body, surely, but their bearing and face was different as, well, night and day. Where Charity held herself up, kept her spine and face rigid, my mother was soft nearly to the point of limp.  I nearly felt like I had to rush over to hold her up.

She looked up at me, face betraying confusion.

“Jomo?”

I stepped forward, taking her into my arms, crushing her clutched arms against me, and kissing the top of her head.

“Mother! Oh, it’s you! I wondered when I’d see you again? How are you? Are you ok? I’ll get you out of here somehow, ok? I promise, we’ll find a way.”

I don’t know how I was making such promises, when police and gangsters both awaited me when I landed, but perhaps Ms. Lafferty could be convinced to help us. Between mother and I, we could take the whole Ritter fortune and find a new place to hide, perhaps on one of the new orbital stations for diurns where the sun never sets.

She pushed away. “Jomo! What am I doing here?”

I didn’t understand. Had I misunderstood? “I’m here to save you, mother.”

“No, what am I doing here?” Tears were streaming down her face, tears I had misunderstood.

“Mother?”

She took a deep breath. “Oh, Jomo. How are you? Tell me you’re ok, at least. I can handle everything, I think, if you are ok.”

“Yes, mother. I’m ok.” Minus the police and gangsters.

“Are you? You won’t be in trouble for whatever you did to bring me here?”

She was insightful, whatever her state.

“No, mother.” No use in upsetting her.

“That’s good. I’m glad you’re ok.  I’d like to go back now.”

Ice clutched at my heart.  “You can’t go back, mother.”

Tears welled back up in her eyes.

“Not yet. Not until nightfall.”

“Oh, Jomo. What have you done?” She slumped against the bed.

“Mother, what’s wrong? What has Charity done to you?”

She looked up at me through tear-curtained eyes. “To me? Charity has blessed me with relief, Jomo. She gives me peace.”

I reached a hand to her face. She put her own hand on top of it. “I could never have been a mother to you, Jomo. Charity made sure you were raised and educated. She made sure you had a job and a life. All I could have done would be to darken your days, son. I owe her more than I can imagine. And she keeps me from hurting.”

My heart ached to see her hurting like this. “There are other ways, mother.”

She shook her head. “Charity never agreed to the medications. It was her body, too, Jomo.”

I lowered my hands. My voice was barely a whisper. “Won’t you come with me?”

She laid back down. “I think I’ll just sleep here, son. Maybe until nightfall.”

#

The plane landed with the sun still shining. Lieutenant Hernandez was waiting, along with a few others for backup, which they didn’t need. In the distance, I saw Tian standing by a carriage. Another figure sat inside. Tian raised a finger to his lips.

I didn’t give them anything on Tian or Ms. Lafferty, the reason being I wanted to survive prison, but I confessed to Phase shifting and alturn abduction. After pleading guilty, I got ten years in the city prison. Every dawn Ritter stopped at one of fifteen centers throughout the city and got in a special carriage which took our body to the lockup before the sun rises.  Every dusk he walked out a free man. The day-lit hours in between, I read or worked out. I tried to exhaust my muscles, just to give him something to complain about during the Dreaming time.

Every dusk, as I laid down, I tried to remember what it was like to be myself, what it meant to have my neurons firing.  I was starting to dream at night, of languid walks and colorful parties. I could feel my voice in my nose and throat and my fingers tapping on the phone.

#

I sponged the forehead of the man on the cot below me as he began to thrash. I reached and held him down.

“It’s happening again, Sister Jolene!”

She strode near to put a rubber strap between the man’s teeth.  She took the sponge from where I had dropped it and took over. She looked down with so much grace and empathy that it was hard to remember that the face was also Manuel’s.

The silvery Closed Eye of the Dreaming God dangled and caught against the simple tie that kept it from swinging down into the man’s face. In time, perhaps one could hang in front of the simple white layman’s robe I wore.

In time the thrashing ended.

“Nyx is such a terrible drug,” she said, shaking her head. “It shouldn’t be allowed regardless of the Sun.”

I nodded, and she turned to the next patient.

We weren’t in Manuel’s apartments anymore. We were into a much cleaner space, though still downtown, outfitted with new cots, sterile IVs, and a small crew, all generously outfitted by Ritter’s funds.

Though she no longer thanked me nightly, Sister Jolene’s face shone with gratitude every night I spent working here.

Nylan and the gang had long since stopped calling. There had been no sign of Tian, though if he got word of Ritter’s change of routine I’m sure I could expect a visit.

I changed back into my clothes to walk to the carriage stop for a ride back to prison, a walk I always enjoyed.

A walk free under the stars.

###

 

Moonflowers

by Alex Gray

Ember blinked as a tiny flame guttered briefly on the bridge of his nose, and started to read from his clipboard.

“Jinx, Jane Doe, get your bony asses over to the The Park dock: angel security has intercepted a container full of satanists trying to get smuggled in. It’s getting ugly: there’s people taking the name of the lord in all kinda fucking vain, and tempers are fraying. Apparently Gabe himself is on his way, in a shit of a mood. Let’s avoid excess blood on the morning news, ok?”

Jinx raised a hand, silver chains and charms rattling: “Sarge, how much would you consider excess?

Ember stared hard for a moment, and we all tensed. If Ember was the barrel of gunpowder in the room, Jinx was the one always trying to apply a match.

“If Gabe draws his flaming sword, what follows will be very much the definition of  ex-fucking-cess. And it will be added to later by however much blood you have in your own scrawny little cadaver. Got it?”

Jane Doe delivered a hard nudge to the ribs and Jinx shut her mouth with a nod.

“Ovid, you and…”

“Aw Sarge, can you give it to someone else? I hate missing-person reports…” I whined, then froze.

Ovid carefully leaned his 300lb slab of a body away from me, with a whispered “You didn’t even let him say it, jerk!”

If there’s one thing you don’t do to Ember, it’s interrupt him when he’s handing out the night shift assignments. If there’s two things you don’t do to Ember, it’s interrupt him AND do so using your freak ability. Especially when he thinks your skill is about as much use as a fart in a spacesuit. And that was a quote. Minus some choice swear words.

I always assumed his temper was on account of the guttering flames that run up and down his body at random, but Ovid says he was just as much a bastard back before it happened in the War.

I thought fast, but talked faster. Which was a shame.

“Sorry, Sarge. Please, do go on…” The accompanying hand movement was meant to be encouraging everyone to just pretend I’d not said a thing, and to keep things moving along, but it came over like the Queen of England giving her tiresome subjects a bored wave.

Ember went even redder than usual: no mean feat for a walking spontaneous human combustion, and Ovid rattled his shaky wooden chair away from me across the rickety floorboards with a noise like Pinocchio being worked over with a two-by-four.

“Are you sure I should continue? I mean, only if you’re okay with it.” Ember rumbled in a voice that sounded like a pack of hunting wolves’ raised hackles looked. “In fact, why don’t you tell me what I was going to say next, Petal?”

Jinx snorted with laughter, then coughed and lowered her head, shooting me a look that was pure delighted malice. The others wore expressions that ranged from very mild sympathy to gratitude that it wasn’t them.

Petal isn’t my real name, I should point out. But whichever nickname sticks as funniest and least kind, that’s what you’re called here. I’d barely opened my mouth to introduce myself after the army chopper dropped me on Governor’s Island one dark night, when the Captain’s high, bored nasal tone had cut through the hot darkness of the landing pad. “Well, look what we have here,” he’d announced. “If it isn’t the most delicate little Petal.”

He’d stressed the capital P in Petal, too. At his side, Ember had grunted in what passed for amusement, a couple of ground crew rats had snickered, and that was that. In my defense, I’m not especially delicate looking, but I am skinny and pale, and he was of course testing me with the flower jibe. You see, no-one has the right to know where you come from, here in the Precinct. Your record, sure. But not your birth. Because none of the ways of becoming this type of cop are easy or nice, and it’s considered rude and sometimes fatal to dig too deep. But you can assume plenty, and this was the Captain’s way of saying he’d chosen to assume I was a Moonflower. Petal, flower, see? I thought it was about that funny, too.

More about Moonflowers later: time to get back to the present. Of course I knew what Ember was going to say next. It was a long, detailed and anatomically infeasible series of instructions for me to carry out. And he knew I knew, so that was why he was thinking that. But telling him that would make it worse, so I needed to defuse the situation. The trouble was, Ember had never really understood that I can’t read minds, so much as just know what people are planning to do next. So like a lot of folks, he gets all antsy round about me, as if I can look into his head and see his deepest darkest secrets. Instead, I just get a three-second warning. Which sounds amazing, and exciting, right? And it can be useful, believe me. But three seconds isn’t very much time to do much. Really, my ability is mostly just to look like the world’s biggest smartass. Which is what the army eventually concluded, and suggested I’d be of more use to the Precinct. Or anywhere that wasn’t the army.

“Sarge, you are planning to say how you realize that deep down I am honored and thrilled to be taking on another challenging missing-person case, and that you are happy I am planning to keep my mouth shut from now on?”

“Ass-kisser!” Jinx coughed into her hand.

Ember stared hard for a few seconds, then nodded. His skin mostly subsided to a dull glow, with only a few singes on the fire-resistant material of his uniform.

“As Petal was saying,” he went on, “he and Ovid will be delighted to go over to The Hook and sort out a report of a missing person, and because they’re so keen, also they want to look into a smash and grab involving a quantity of hellstones.”

Ovid shuffled and rattled his chair back across the boards like a long slow collapse in a lumber yard, and punched me hard on the arm. I knew it was coming, but thought best to just act normal for a bit, so yelped and rubbed the spot he’d hit.

Normally we’d all wait for the briefing to end, so’s we had a rough idea what the others were up to. It avoided misunderstandings and the occasional friendly fire incident. And gave the entirely false impression we were kind of a community, and cared for each other, rather than being a bunch of freaks and sociopaths thrown together like a supernatural band-aid.

This time, though, with Ember pissed, I raced to the front and took the briefing sheets from his outstretched hand, blowing out a smoldering flame on the corner, and me and Ovid scooted out the back door into the freezing night.

We paused on the porch to button our coats up. I have to say, Governor’s Island is one pretty place, even bathed in the hellish glow of The Hook just across the water in Brooklyn. We call it The Hook, because it was Red Hook long before it had the bad luck to be Hell’s home base on the East Coast of North America. If we’d come out the front door of the Precinct rather than scuttling out the back, we’d have been lit in a pure white light from the angels’ crib over on the southern tip of Manhattan. Heaventown, officially, but Battery Park on old maps, so The Park to us. We’re not so keen on the dramatic names: they’re for the tourists and thrill-seekers.

And here we are in the middle: neutral ground, and probably the best real estate for a police station I’ve ever seen. The island used to be 170 acres of parkland, complete with revolutionary war fort (now the jail and armory), a few dozen magnificent old naval officer’s mansions and even a church that looks like it was teleported from old England. It’s still beautiful, if you ignore all the hardware that a cop precinct dealing with Heaven and Hell needs, and the wandering devils, angels, diplomats and lawyers. And yes, the last ones are the worst.

Most of the mansions have been fixed up nicely and used for consulates, legal offices, guest quarters and a medical center that’s set up to treat the most imaginative injuries you can sustain in heaven or hell. Not forgetting an orphanage that makes the medical center look dull and predictable. The Precinct’s mansion is the exception, of course: it has a certain haughty elegance, and some fine old wooden staircases and even fancy pillars holding up the porch roof, but close up it’s a mess, and if you lean too hard on anything, it tends to break. Which isn’t a bad metaphor for the night shift, either.

Officially we make sure the two turfs are safe and law-abiding. In reality, we barely keep the lid on the places, and we do that through a mix of intimidation, fear, persuasion and blind luck. For the sake of clarity, as far as me and Ovid go, he’s the intimidation and fear, while I’m the persuasion and blind luck. The non blind luck on the shift is Jinx, who’s a total nightmare, but I must admit, a force to be reckoned with. Her talent is just that: luck. When she needs it the most. The downside? She takes the luck from people around her. That can come in handy when some demon is about to stick you, but less so if you need to work with her. That’s why she’s paired with Jane Doe: Doe is immune to all and everything in Heaven, Hell and between. Except sarcasm. Just don’t go there. Or ask her anything about herself. As far as Doe’s concerned, she didn’t exist before she turned up on the Precinct doorstep one night with signed papers.

Anyways, enough of the bios: I’d be all night trying to explain Pinky and Perky, let alone Phasers on Stun. Ovid is the muscle and I’m the brains, I like to say. He likes to say he’s the muscle and the brains and I’m a dead weight. Whatever, his talents lie in the physical: Ovid is a Hellvet: one of the soldiers who were flung into the initial invasion toeholds to buy time. Most died  in various inventive ways. Some went mad. A smaller percentage, exposed to the otherwordly energies that were flying around from both sides, picked up certain abilities. And also went mad, though in a manageable way, mostly. Ovid was a 200-lb Ranger. Now he’s a 300-lb cartoon of a soldier with skin that can stop a 50-caliber bullet and fists that can hit harder than one. Ugly as sin, mind, but somehow, that doesn’t deter the ladies. And here’s me, young, handsome, (in a sallow kind of way) funny and yet single. Go figure.

You should know that I just waffle on like this to keep myself grounded: we all do something mundane and ordinary like that for relaxation. Working where we work, and coming from where we came from, you need to ease off on the weird, sometimes. Ovid plays chess, Ember reads, Jinx knits. Me, I chatter on endlessly, and record it. I won’t tell you what Pinky does. I always say, if you’re hearing this, then it means I’m dead and you’re going through my meager possessions. A shoebox full of memory chips? Sorry, by now you’ll know they contain nothing more exciting than my audio diary. On the other hand, I do upload them all to my weekly podcast that nobody listens to, so maybe one day I’ll get a fan, and maybe that’s you?

“You with me, Petal?” Ovid grunted. He was holding the lightly singed sheets  up to the swaying porch light. Ember wrote in red pen, which was invisible in the red light coming from The Hook. “He’s smart: nobody can read them over in The Hook,” I’d said when I joined a few months ago. “He’s a bastard: we can’t read them either,” Ovid had replied.

“So what’s with the missing person? That’s hardly a big deal in The Hook,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to get my hood to stay up. The snow was horizontal and sticky.

Ovid grunted again—that was his stock response to any question, and often all the answer you were going to get. It was my lucky day, though, because he elaborated a little.

“It’s a big deal when your daddy is U.S. Ambassador to The Hook and The Park,” he said, waving a poorly copied photo at me. Slim, white, entitled looking late teen dressed in black leather. I rolled my eyes at the predictability of it all: all the rich kids thought they needed to look like Kate Beckinsale in those pre-War vampire movies. And she was called Winter Vandenburg. Winter. Why do these rich kids have such cool names? And why was I stuck with ‘Petal’?

I whistled. “She was in The Hook without a bodyguard?”

“Nah, she gave ‘em the slip. They were just civilian pricks.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a dig at me or not. Ovid didn’t like civvies. Technically I was ex military, which made me a born-again prick in his opinion.

“Here,” he thrust the sheet into my numbing hands. “Since you messed the night up, you can handle this solo. I’ll deal with the hellstone heist.”

I focused on him, then shook my head. “The fast boat is out of service: she sprung a leak,” I said, just as he started to say “take the…”

Ovid was looking at me oddly. Was that compassion? Sympathy? Probably just indigestion. “Kid,” he said. “There’s gotta be more to your talents than this sideshow stuff. You gotta be, I dunno, more…proactive.”

I stared, expecting something in the way of wisdom, or guidance. I concentrated and realized he was about to do and say nothing at all in the next few seconds. He stared back, then shrugged his huge shoulders and turned and walked away. I scurried to catch up.

We trudged through the accumulating snow to the armory in the depths of the old fort. For once, there was no howling/screaming/cursing/singing from the cells, and I noticed most were empty. The snow keeps the crazies quiet, sometimes. Or buries them where they fall, so they become the day shift’s problems. Dirty Harriet was on duty, and nodded at Ovid as we walked in, then squeaked off out of sight on her wheeled chair for a moment, returning with a cannon as big as my thigh. She slid it across the worn desk, along with a holdall of ammo. She looked me over, her ancient face wrinkled like a raisin, then rolled away again.

“This is going the be hilarious,” I said, flatly, a split second before she came back with a tiny silver-chromed derringer-like pistol, like the ladies and shady gamblers had tucked into a stocking top in old riverboat movies.

“I was wrong…you’re the funniest person I ever met,” I said in the same tone. Behind me, Ovid paused from sliding cartridges the size of hotdogs into the cannon and grunted with laughter. Just like he did every time.

Harriet gave a toothless smile and rolled away again, this time handing over a regular-sized automatic and webbing. Regular-sized for the Precinct, that is: like everything else, ordnance had to be kind of over-engineered to last long in the zones, and this looked like a pre-War pistol on steroids. It had two oversized ammo clips, one painted with a white cross, the other a rough dot. Different ammo for The Hook and The Park, to cover all bases. Truth is, it takes a load of firepower to take down an angel or a devil, especially on their home turf, and so both were basically heavy-duty slugs with a coating of whatever exotic metals and chemicals the lab boys had decided might give you the edge against your average supernatural foe. While we were never sure we could put one down for good, we did know that these things hurt like hell. Or heaven. Or something else belief-system appropriate—but painful. We also checked out walkie-talkies, flashlights, and a handful of ‘pick-me-ups’: basically Twinkie-sized locator-flare combos to summon the cavalry.

Ten minutes later we were waiting at the landing pad as a battered Osprey clattered down with a squeal and a bump. We tend to get mili-surplus, which means the previous owner wasn’t exactly a retired librarian who only used the vehicle to get to the senior-citizens’ lunch club once a week. Also, the screwy physics in The Hook and The Park take a heavy toll on anything electrical or mechanical that stays there too long. Not to mention most organics, other than us freaks who could handle it. Here on the Island, the overlapping energies had created a neutral zone, so it wasn’t too bad. Off to the left, the small red landing spot for demons was empty, while on the other side, an angel was coming in to land, his/her impressive wings beating hard to cope with the crosswinds. Awe-inspiring sight, except for the fact that the updraft was blowing his-her robes up, exposing a load more than was decent for a heavenly creature. Never could figure why they’d made the leap to modern body armor easily, but still insisted on those white billowing numbers underneath. At least the devils went for suits or leisure wear, which was way more practical, if a little gauche. I looked away, though: no sense of humor, these angels, and a visit this late had to be connected to the Jinx and Jane Doe’s case.

We clambered aboard the Osprey and as we lifted off I could see the pair trudging unhappily toward the pissed-off looking angel, and I took a moment to raise my middle finger to the window, just in case Jinx was looking up.

Old H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t far wrong when he wrote: “Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand.” His added: “As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side,” was pretty much true, too, and the cause of a lot of our caseload. Maybe he had the Gift, and knew what would happen? Or maybe he was just a crazy man. If he’d been able to see it right before the War, he’d have probably been just as dismayed at the way the yuppies were driving out the artists and hustlers and duckers-and-divers, stealing away the clapboard houses overnight and replacing them with tall thin condos. Or so I hear: I was born after the War ended, so have to take the old-timers’ word for it. Once Armageddon-Lite was damped down, all the remaining Hellish units on the east coast retreated to that almost-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood and barricaded it with a motley array of barbed wire, moats of burning oil and pretty much anything sharp they could find or make. Treaties were hastily signed and in time, official crossing points set up. As for the residents, most left, but some stayed and adapted. Or just vanished. And many new ones came flocking to enjoy the money-making delights the de-mobbed demonic troops had set up. Let that mix marinate in the gentle heat of Hell for three decades and you had a chunk of waterfront real estate that was a mix of Disney World, Atlantic City and one of Brueghel the Younger’s more ghastly paintings. Enough of the ancient history, though.

Nowadays the red lighting was part from the burning oil (a vanity that kept the local mob-run oil truck companies in business) and from a trick that made every light source and neon sign glow red or orange. Plus, it was always dusk or night there. Quite how that was managed was a mystery that sucked in a great many scientists. Some of them even managed to come back out, but never any the wiser. It was kind of obvious to us poor sods who worked there: when the gates to Heaven and Hell closed, they didn’t close all the way, and shit was still leaking out. Shame none of the eggheads ever asked us, really.

We were dropped on the roof of what had once been a warehouse, then a squat, then a trendy art gallery, and still was the latter, except the works of art were now alive, and tortured for the entertainment of visitors. And it was all official—there were always dumb thrill-seekers happy to sign away a few hours or days (time’s kind of vague in the zones) for exquisite torture. It’s not my thing, but hey, I’m not here to judge, except in a street-justice kind of way, and that deals with the physical rather than the moral.

The snow was falling here, too, except it was burning: no cliché is too much for The Hook. Not burning enough to set stuff afire, mostly, but more of a zap and a tingle. And it was blood red, of course, and yet cold. I don’t waste time thinking about things like that any more. The night was full of the usual smells and sounds of The Hook: screaming of all natures, music of all types, cars honking and screeching their tires, arguing, shouting, smoke, smog, fog, narco-fumes, sewerage, blood, vomit: basically every noise and stench associated with pleasure or pain or both at once. Behind it all, I fancied, there was the sound of dirty money being counted: The Hook had put pretty much every casino, brothel and drug den in a thousand mile radius out of business by offering what they did, except better, bigger, louder and more intense.

We didn’t hang around: we weren’t the only ones who came in by air, but we stood out by arriving on a beat-up army chopper. The high-rollers who came to party, or buy, or sell, tended to touch down in glistening hover-jets or sleek cruisers. The ones who didn’t want attention slipped in on stealthed powerboats. There were lots of rumors of tunnels, too, but more than one would-be smuggler had found out the hard way that the burning oil moats were dug real deep.

You’ve probably got that we aren’t cops in the regular sense. There’s no hope of patrolling The Hook or The Park: the devils and angels have their own official security, as well as various unofficial outfits. And don’t forget that every damned (or blessed) one of them was a soldier: when Heaven and Hell opened for that brief time, it was for war. And there are few real laws either: some things were agreed in broad terms, but it’s mostly a gray area. Reddish gray, and brightly lit gray, variously, but gray all the same. So we have a brief to tackle anything we want, so long as it involves a threat to humans. And really, if you try hard, you can make pretty much anything into a potential threat to humans. So long as you remember that you’re on the home turf of a few thousand of the toughest soldiers Heaven and Hell produced. So we need to be ready to act fast and improvise faster. And that means blending in, sort of. And not being too heavily laden. Ovid can pass for a bigger-than-average-sized devil when his face is covered (and even when not, I assure him when he’s really pissing me off), and tends to hang that ludicrous cannon down inside his greatcoat. Me, I look like a lot of the lost waifs that end up in the zones, and so don’t usually get a second look, unless it’s to judge how much I cost, or how easy I’d be to carry off. What isn’t obvious about me is that I’m unaffected by either the narcotic buzz that infuses The Hook, or the bliss that permeates The Park. I’m often taken to be Hookborn or Parkborn, but again, I lack the inbuilt subservience those poor sods have. Also, I have my gun. And my ability, such as it is.

Ferris Street was busy, as always. Kind of like midnight Friday in the main drag of any party town. But red. And times a thousand in terms of drunken debauchery. Devils, humans, thralls, thrill-junkies and a hundred other types, all mingling with no good in mind, streaming in and out of the bars, eateries and private clubs that had replaced the chi-chi ballet studios and yoga studios.

Ovid leaned close, eyes never leaving the street, and grated: “Kid, you head to Jezzie’s Bar, ask around. I’ll go check out the other matter along on Beard Street.” Then he was gone, the crowd parting to let him pass, then swirling closed behind him. I sighed. I wasn’t used to being solo down here. Not that I was scared so much as wary. Ovid was a pain in the ass, but a reassuring presence when the shit went down. Not that it needed to go down tonight, I reminded myself: this was a missing person, most likely a simple overstay. Jezzie’s was back near the East River, so I took a right down Sullivan. I concentrated hard as I slouched along, keeping my uncanny eye out. Most people and devils I passed were intent on carrying on doing whatever they were doing: walking, not bumping into anyone bigger than themselves, talking, drinking, inhaling. One in a few was like a live wire, their plans changing like lightning, alert for a chance to steal a wallet, snatch a bag, spot a mark to follow with malice in mind. I slid through the crowd, invisible, pre-warned to avoid any engineered collisions or muggings.

Jezzie’s is a feminist succubus bar. No, really. There weren’t that many succubi in the War, but those that did take part were much feared. And much adored, by people whose buttons that pushed. After the War, Jezzie decided she’d had enough of the shit that the female of any species had to endure, and so decided to create a safe space. With alcohol. And sex, though only of the consensual type. This might not sound too radical, but for a succubus, it was pretty out there. She employed only other reformed succubi, except for the door security: the thing about succubi is, they are pretty much tuned to drive anything male and most things female into a lustful froth, and so wasted passersby were trying to grope Jezzie’s colleagues, and tending to lose limbs when they did. Now, it’s a regular gorilla-sized demon on duty under the neon sign (the female symbol, complete with devil horns: iconic now, featuring on postcards and all kinds of licensed accessories). This one I recognized: a surly obtuse lump of obsidian. The thing was, Jezzie didn’t allow guns inside. Now, that didn’t apply to cops, but then cops didn’t apply to Jezzie. I concentrated and before he could open his mouth, I said: “I know. Tell Jezzie I’m here. Yes she is. Petal,” and I sidestepped with plenty of time to avoid the clawed baseball mitt of a hand he reached out to disarm me with. A thunderous frown had just started to creep across the rubble field he called a face, when his earpiece buzzed and after a second he ungraciously reached to the side and pushed the huge iron door open with one hand. I knew Jezzie would be watching through a cam: people are her hobby. And for my own safety I slipped my holster off and dangled it well off to my right, the gun butt close to the floor, and stepped inside.

If you’ve never been inside a feminist succubus bar, you might be be disappointed, at least by the decor. Jezzie’s looks like nothing so much as a pre-War hipster dive joint with the heat turned up too high. The punters are pretty ordinary, too: a mix of regular-shaped demons and seasoned human visitors and workers enjoying some down time. No torture, at least out front, no fights, just hard drinking and on Tuesdays, Bingo. Jezzie also runs a book club, but it’s mostly women, and anyways I was blacklisted by Jinx. Less ordinary by far are the bar staff, who look like a crazed Heavy Metal magazine artist’s wet dream. At least they do to regular humans: I’m immune to the charm, luckily, so to me they just look like ordinary super-hot women, assuming your taste runs to red skin and horns. Not really my thing, and anyways I tend to blush.

“Petal, my dear, you really must do something about that hair: you look like a stray cat,” a throaty educated voice purred from behind me. That was the thing about Jezzie: she could move silently. That was one of the things, I mean. There were a great many more, than made a visit both a pleasure and a worry. She reached out and took my holster as if picking up an old sock, mild distaste creasing her exquisite face. I instinctively raised a hand to try and flatten my hair, then stopped myself and focused, trying to regain some composure. That was another Jezzie thing: keep people unsettled and get information out of them. Red hair, freckles and no higher than my shoulder: Jezzie looked for all the world like a beautiful college grad in her 20s. Assuming that grad was naked and covered from toes to neck in tiny shiny blue-black scales. I always look Jezzie right in the eye, and nowhere else. She seems to find this amusing.

“So what can we do for you this fine night?” Jezzie inquired, taking a seat in a corner booth and motioning for me to do the same. She hung the gun down the side on a hook and rubbed her hands as if cleaning them.

“Missing person,” I said wearily, shrugging out of my parka and fishing the rumpled pic out a pocket. Jezzie traded in news and tidbits. Not about official police business, or anything as boring, but seemingly random gossip. I’ll never understand demons, I swear. But she did seem to have a genuine interest in keeping women safe, as far as that definition even applied in The Hook, so she was a good bet.

I focused on her as she examined the image. “Yes, she was in here two days ago,” was what she planned to say. But what she said was: “Never seen her. Sorry, Petal,” and slid it back across the table at me. I could see her expression close up, and knew I had one chance. Proactive, Ovid had said, and I thought furiously.

“So where was she headed?”

Jezzie frowned and for a split second I knew she was going to say “Baz’s mansion, with some choice demons you don’t want to mess with,” but she simply stared at me. And when Jezzie stared, you felt like you were being peeled.

“There is more to you than meets the eye, then Petal,” she said calmly, but her eyes were dancing with excitement. “The word is, you’re just a low level psychic, but this is something else, isn’t it?”

She was about to lean forward across the table and kiss me, and it’s a dead fool that lets a succubus’s lips touch him. I jerked back and saw her sitting motionless, smiling a little.

“Well, well…I think I need to find out a little more about you, Petal.”

I stammered something and lurched to my feet: the last thing I needed was for Jezzie to take a close interest in me. And the second last was for my ability to be common knowledge. I had precious few advantages as it was. I was at the door before Jezzie called “you forgot something, Petal,” and I turned just in time to catch the lazily tossed gun and holster. She had a strange look on her face, and I concentrated and knew she was about to add: “I don’t think this one wants to be found.” But of course, she didn’t say a thing, merely twitched a corner of her mouth when I involuntarily nodded. I stumbled out into the cold and dark.

I called Ovid from the relative quiet of a doorway down the block. Nothing, which meant he was either out of range or underground. Cells didn’t work in The Hook, or anything less robust than our kick-ass short-range radios. I shoved the walkie-talkie back in my pocket. This was a real mess: Baz was one of the senior Fallen, and a real piece of work. Some demons had settled into a low-key existence here on Earth. A few, like Jezzie, had changed their ways. But a handful, the oldest and most powerful, had set themselves up as feudal lords. They were limited in some ways: no human government—at least not the one in the U.S.A.—could turn a blind eye to actual hellish torture. But those old bastards were nothing if not cunning and had their ways. Baz’s name came up in pretty much every report of demon-human crime syndicates and at least one failed coup. Way out of my league, but what could I do apart from head over to his mansion and make a nuisance of myself as usual? I just hoped Ovid might surface by then.

Coffey Park was a little bit shitty back in the old days, but supposedly pretty enough for people to hang out, party, make out and occasionally get robbed in. Now, it’s beautiful if your taste runs to living trees that will snatch anything in reach, vampire grass that can penetrate think shoes and suck a half pint out of you, and various ornamental beasts that would benefit from an airdropped nuke, in my opinion. Still, a foot of bloody snow was making it all slightly less horrific. I was sitting on a bench at the edge, looking diagonally across at Baz’s townhouse. You’re thinking Gothic, right? With spires and maybe a skeleton or two in cages? Not at all: for no reason anyone can account for, Baz went for modern glass and concrete, even brought in a starchitect for the project. He got it—and Baz—on the cover of some of the top design magazines, too, which was pretty funny.

So basically, my half-baked plan to climb in looked kind of stupid in the face of all that sheer glass and concrete. I knew it was a modern, but had assumed there’d be some handholds. On close inspection, the human fly would have struggled to get a foot off the ground. So I just sat watching, with the momentary distraction of a really dumb stray bird landing on a tree and being snatched up in a tangle of feathers and tentacles. Then, as luck would have it, the louvered steel door to the parking garage under Baz’s house started to roll up. I sauntered across the street at an angle designed not to take me right to it, and had to jump smartly out of the way as a pair of vaguely embarrassed looking demons came buzzing up on vintage Segways. Funny sense of humor, the Fallen. I’d have laughed, except I was busy not being run over, and patting clods of smoldering snow off my pants. Also, these bodyguard demon types tended to be short on humor and long on temper.

A moment later a compact electric sedan came purring out. The windows were reflective, so all I could see was my own anxious pale face staring slackly. I had the first of my only two good idea of the night, right then: I fished one of the little pick-me-ups out a pocket and more of less accurately dropped it under the car via a sly flick of the wrist. They weren’t really meant for that, but some genius in tech had made them magnetic and sticky, and so we once in a while left them on a shipping container we wanted watching, or a vehicle we needed tracking. The actual electronic tracking effect was unreliable in the zone, but I had an idea, assuming it had actually bounced up and stuck, rather than rolling into the gutter. No way to know now, and no time to think about it. Then the car was gone, tailed by another two Hell’s Segwayers. That was surely Baz, and I looked wildly around for a red cab. Nothing. Also, if you were dumb enough to get in one and say “follow that car”, and the car was very obviously the one belonging to one of the head honchos in The Hook, chances are you’d be driven to the docks and the driver would stamp on the gas and thumb the childlocks as he jumped out.

I can’t say why I did what I did next, partly because I did it so badly that I lost consciousness for a second or three and details are foggy. I think I was trying to duck under the descending door like heroes do in the movies. In fact, I slipped on a patch of oil and slammed my head on the concrete ramp, stunning myself and sliding down the slushy slope like a long thin pizza into an oven. When I came to, I was a good ten feet down into the garage, and hurting all over. Slick.

Now I was in, I thought I might as well have a look around. If Baz was gone, maybe he left Winter? Or a clue, ideally a matchbook from a nightclub that would lead me to the truth: I know, I watch too many old movies, but you have to be an optimist, if you seriously work in a little slice of Hell.

I avoided the elevator, and so trudged around the garage until I found the stairs. Nice collection of cars, I must say: a couple of the oil-burners demons like to take out now and again to make a statement, and a dozen really cool Astons and Audis. I admit I might have keyed the side of a few as I walked past, out of sheer jealousy. The stairs were a trial, with my head still thumping, and I made myself stop every minute to listen out for voices. I heard a few muffled conversations: human thralls doing whatever they do there, and the bark of a shrill demonic housekeeper. I ducked past the windows to each floor, heading upwards. Demons might be from the deepest place, but like everyone else who thinks themselves important, they like to live up high. Maybe it reminds them of their pre-Fall days.

The stairs ended about ten stories up, and I paused, damp, sore and wheezing. I opened the door a crack, seeing a tastefully carpeted hall, and listened. Nothing. So, not giving myself time to think too hard, I stepped out, trying to look like I was meant to be there. That’s the thing: cop or not, if I was caught trespassing in the penthouse of one of the major powers, they’d be needing a sieve to catch the pieces of me as I floated down the East River. And that was if I was lucky. I pushed open the first door I came to: clearly Baz’s bedroom. And no, it wasn’t a black velvet rotating bed under a mirror, with exhausted slaves chained to it: it looked pretty much like something from Vogue, assuming the furniture was scaled up by a half. White bedlinen, too. I swear I saw slippers lined up, but now wasn’t the time to go looking for a demon’s Pjs.

Next door was the right one (no locks, I should mention: who’d be stupid enough to trespass in the penthouse of one of Hell’s major stars?), leading into a stunning open space with glass from floor to ceiling overlooking the park. Light on furniture and unlit save the constant flickering red from outside. I took a couple of steps, my fireproof Doc Marten soles making tiny squeaking noises on the polished stone floor. I could see what looked like racks of clothes stood near the front, and shoeboxes. I got about three-quarters of the way there before my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw that off to my right, in a deep alcove, was a colossal throne-like chair. And in the manner of the best fairytales, it was occupied. Baz was sitting in it, staring right at me, a huge well tailored shadow. I froze, very much not reaching for my gun: a big boss like Baz could drop me before I could even touch it. I focused on him, looking for an angle, something I might reply to whatever he was planning to say, in time to save my skin. Nothing. I don’t mean no plans; I mean there was nothing to read, like there was nobody home in that massive body. Not dead, either: dead bodies have traces, lingering thoughts and can be pretty weird. This was like he was made of stone. I did the thing my body wanted me to do least, and walked slowly towards him. His eyes were open, and glistening. But not focusing. With demons you can’t really get fixated on whether they’re breathing or not: sure, they follow some basic laws here on Earth, but they’re pretty much able to bend them, and eating, drinking and breathing all seem optional.

Then it hit me: Baz was there in body but not spirit. He was off possessing some poor schmuck, probably off on the town having awful fun. I left his body well alone and padded over to the clothes rails. First surprise was a small, mostly leather, outfit, with matching little biker boots, nearly racked. Winter: she’d been wearing that in the photo. Aw shit, was he inside Winter’s head? I assumed so, but then saw the second surprise: the other rack, that looked all red (of course) but was actually white. Like, all white, from the shoes to the wide selection of dresses, pants, tops, you name it. With a few empty hangers and one discarded shoe box. I wasn’t about to go double checking label sizes, but a blind man could see they were the same size as the black leather gear. So, unless I’m even dumber than people think, which is kind of impossible, Winter had changed clothes. And there was only one place you would be headed dressed like that, apart from a costume party. The Park. Shit. But she couldn’t be possessed, as the angels would know the second a demon was in their hood, and come down like a ton of vengeful bricks. Yes, bricks. You didn’t hear me swap the b for a p.

Things were starting to get really weird. I had about five seconds to think about that before the door opened and a human flunky stepped in with a clothes steamer in one hand, and about one tenth of a second later, a hefty automatic in the other. He shrieked, loudly.

The homicidal butler was broadcasting his intent loud and clear: he was not about to open fire anywhere near his boss’s vacant body. That gave me a second to scuttle closer to the chair and Baz, while considering my options. Then the door opened behind him and this time a trio of bigger thugs rushed in. One of them was either a World’s Strongest Man hit hard times and just done with a cheap facial peel, or what I term a thug-class demon: all muscle and attitude. Two had stun guns and the demon had hands full of claws like kitchen knives.

The way I saw it, which was through the filter of being in a total panic, was that I could try and shoot my way out or…well, there wasn’t an or. Except, I got a strong bump from the demon that he was about to flank me, to try and get me away from their boss before getting inventive. So I did what I always do: the opposite of what people want. I closed the distance between me and Baz and pulled my gun, pressing the barrel right up under his impressive chin. I didn’t have to say a word: they all did a variety of hand signs along the lines of “calm down” and “we’re stepping back now, we swear!” The biggest one was thinking hard: I could virtually see all his options bubbling to the surface then being discarded. The fact was, if I pulled the trigger and kept pulling, even Baz’s super tough hide wouldn’t save him, and thought he might not be permanently dead, when he came back to possess his own body again he’d be mightily sore and hugely pissed at his lack of a brain and face.

Which kind of left us at an impasse. And one that would at best land me in the biggest political and diplomatic shit-storm imaginable, the type that in the movies landed the hapless cop on traffic duty, and which in this precinct could be a million times less pleasant. I was focused hard on the plans of the demon and my head was aching like it was about to burst: this type of concentration was tough, and I already had a mild concussion. Proactive, Ovid said. Easy for him, sitting having tea in a fancy jeweler’s shop. I imagined him kicking in the door behind the trio, gun blazing. And a second later the window behind me shattered in a billion pieces, and the three goons were blown off their feet by a hail of heavy-caliber slugs. The concussions bounced and echoed off the floor, walls and ceiling and I shot a worried glance at Baz, who was mercifully still out of body.

I turned, stunned, to see Ovid dangling awkwardly from a rope, the kick from his cannon spinning him, cursing. “Did I MAKE you appear?” I said, jaw hanging open, as the big man hammered at his harness and dropped to the floor level, scrabbling for purchase.

”What? Get a grip, Petal,” he grunted. “An Osprey and a handy blizzard to hide it in, that’s what made me appear. On the roof. To rescue your stupid ass once I got the message you were outside the pad of the one of the biggest bastards in this town. Also, what the fuck?”

I nodded to Baz, and had the slight pleasure of seeing Ovid twitch a little. “Don’t shoot!” I shrieked, knowing his intent without reading him. “He’s not in there.”

I’ll give Ovid credit: he just nodded and said: “You got a pressing need to stay?”

The two humans he’d shot with his cannon were not ever getting up again. The demon was stirring and there were loud footsteps in the hall outside. Lots of them. I shook my head.

Ovid stepped back to the shattered window, and I noticed he was still clipped in. “Grab a hold, Petal.”

I don’t like heights so much, but I like being torn apart by a demon’s household goons even less, so I stepped smart and gripped the onto the heavy-duty harness Ovid had on.

“Are we going up to the roof for evac?” I shouted over the howling wind and snow, as Ovid fired a burst over my shoulder that left me partially deaf.

“Evac?” he actually barked out a laugh. “Kid, the only way is down.”

We made it about two thirds of the way, spinning in the blizzard and battering against the glass façade, when a hail of gunfire and a thrown pitchfork (retro gauche, these demons) came our way. I can’t be sure which of them severed the rope, but I can confirm that it was the pitchfork that hit Ovid in the chest. The rest of the way down was fast, and ended painfully.

Now, if I fell two floors onto a concrete sidewalk in the regular world, even one that was under a foot of snow, I’d be dead. Or at least being wheeled around by nurses for a year. But the zones are different. Sure, the demons and angels are pretty much unkillable on their home turf, but us poor schmucks who have the ability to come and go with no ill effects; we’re also a load tougher there. We need to be, or we’d be dead in a minute. So a fall like that, while it hurt a lot, and I was sure my ankle was broken, didn’t finish me off.

I knew from past experience to just keep moving, and most things would mend themselves well enough to make do. I contributed to the mayhem by firing back up towards the window we’d gracelessly exited from, but given the snow was falling thick, fast and glowing, and I’m not a great shot, I probably just grazed some poor non-innocents a few blocks away as the bullets came down again. Ovid, though, he was a worry: the big man wasn’t moving so well, thanks to six feet of dirty steel through his chest and shoulder. He wasn’t saying much, which was nothing new. But when he reached up and broke the shaft clean through, he hissed like a steam kettle, and I saw a gush of dark blood soak his heavy coat front.

“Get me to the park, we can call in a lift from there,” Ovid whispered.

I lifted one arm over my shoulder and heaved. Man, he was heavy, but mix of fear, adrenalin and guilt gave me strength, and the two of us tottered across the street. There was no return fire from the wrecked penthouse, which was good and bad: good in that we were still alive, bad in that it meant there was a legion of wickedness pounding down the stairs after us. Ovid must have been thinking the same, because he roused himself long enough to lob a handful of plum-sized grenades back at the building front. Note: Ovid has very big hands, so I doubled our speed, hoping my ankle and heart could take it.

We’d gotten about 20 yards into the park when there was a flash behind us that was like a supernova through the snowstorm. A muffled bang followed, then silence and we sank to our knees in the smoldering snow. I dug out another flare and hit the tag, hurling it a decent distance away, where it flashed like a second nova. That, and the resulting burst of hi-power comms would hopefully have base divert their nearest asset. If not, then me and Ovid would probably be discovered sometime in spring.

Well, I guess we got lucky, or at least stopped continuing to be quite so unlucky. My walkie-talkie squawked about two minutes later, and the Osprey thumped down clumsily in a glowing snowdrift 30 yards away. If I’d been the religious type—religious apart from obviously believing in Heaven and Hell because, you know, I worked there, I mean—I’d have said the big ugly shape was our guardian angel. But then angels were assholes and didn’t look out for anyone. I can’t say for sure how I hefted Ovid and got him there. I do know that left a long black trail in the snow, along the way. A crewman I recognized from earlier blanched but hauled him aboard, then reached down to help me. I paused, then shook my head. By my reckoning I had a lot of making up to do, and quitting now wasn’t about to help. I waved him away, shouting: “Do me a favor! When you get enough height, send out a pulse to all the active flares, would you? And if you see anything, radio me!”

As they lifted off, I could hear shouts from back towards Baz’s place. I turned to limp off through the park, and saw a glinting red spark in the snow. I mean REALLY red. Hellstone red. I looked closer and there were a few scattered around. I guess Ovid must have solved his case, stowed the evidence on his person and dropped them when he was hauled aboard the ride out. Hellstones are incredibly precious and also insanely dangerous: supposedly they’re made from the crushed essence of a dead demon. Sounds BS, but whatever, they glow with a cold fire that’s red even by The Hook’s standards, and swap hands for millions each in the real world. There are whispers that in The Hook, and back in actual Hell, they can be used to imprison demons and humans. Can’t say I’d ever seen one up close before, but reckoned Ovid might need them for the court case, so I grabbed up a gold chain inset with them, plus a few loose stones, then skedaddled.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone take a stroll in Coffey Park unless they’re armed and smart, and wearing thick boots, but really, with the trees and grass blanketed in smoldering snow, it was kind of pretty. I always had a good sense of direction, and trusted the blinding snow to fill my tracks, so just waded on towards the opposite side. I passed the big spherical wrought-iron sundial, so knew I was getting there. As usual, some poor sod was inside it, shrieking and burning, so I put my head down and tried to look inconspicuous, as he/she/it would tell tales if it meant a chance of release.

I needed time to think, but didn’t get it. The walkie-talkie buzzed and I thumbed it on. It wasn’t Ovid, but sounded like a crewman: “Got a flash, over on Bowne. Empty lot by the old tunnel entrance. Ovid says you’re a prick, and be ‘proactive’.”

Then there was just noise. Again, with the ‘proactive’ shit, as if I was just some self-pitying slacker who thought life owed me…I dropped that line of thought fast. Bowne Street was just a few blocks away, so I sped up and thought hard. The Hugh L Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, for those who care) used to go from Red Hook to Manhattan, passing right by and under Governor’s Island. When the respective demonic and angelic forces had retreated to their own camps, the tunnel was a flashpoint, and a pitched battle was fought through it’s grimy 9,000-foot length. Nasty stuff, by all accounts: word is that Ember fought there, once the U.S. Army got involved to try and force a peace. Whatever, there were some almighty explosions of Heavenly and Hellish ordnance down there, and the tunnel was flooded and then blocked at both ends. Now, The Hook’s border ran just the other side of the shattered highways that dipped towards the old entrance. Well, call me Sherlock, but if there’s a ‘impassible’ tunnel, and the villain and the damsel in distress are headed there, then clearly it is not in fact blocked. Easy! I might as well have called the case in then, passed it off to the big boys. But (a) they’d have laughed me out of the force, and (b) it was my fault Ovid was a 300-lb shish kebab, and I needed to at least show him I could do something right. Right? Right. There was also a (c), whereby I had no wish to try and account for my involvement in a gunfight in the penthouse of one of The Hook’s most important shits.

I shuffled along through the revelers, until the streets got darker and less busy. Bowne was the last stretch, a few low-rent bars and clubs catering to entertainments that were sketchy even by The Hook’s standards, then the old Brooklyn Motor Inn (now a casino where the stakes are easy: your soul. Seriously, it’s all drawn up in a contract and everything. And a real pain in the ass for us: the newly damned are really really stupid and think they’re immortal. A swift punch on the head usually clears that up) to my left, and down over the railings, the flooded entrance to the tunnel. Deep, dark, roiling red water, rather than the typical deep dark smelly East River. I once saw a two-bit Hook-born hitman try to swim it to get away from us. Officially, he drowned, but I saw teeth in the water, and won’t forget that in a while. On the other side, a raggedy section of fence, glowing hot, then a wide stretch of wasteland.

Half a block away, barely visible through the snow, I could see a guttering pink glow: the last of the flare, I was pretty sure, so I angled to pass rather than right at it. I was kind of surprised that my idea had worked at all: then as I got closer, kind of alarmed at how well it had worked. A smoldering chauffeur and four pissed-looking Hell’s Segwayers were standing around the burned out remains of Baz’s sleek electric car. Oops. I had a moment of sheer panic that Winter had been inside, but their body language was more irritated than anything else, and I was guessing that if they’d let their boss’s (possible) host broil, they’d be a lot more agitated. And I’d have been as well just walking right into the red water.

I fixed my attention on the driver, and tried to ignore my sore head. He was about to tell one of the heavies to “get in there and try and find them,” along with a nod of his head, but then dismissed that in favor of “Ok, get back to the base as planned. We’re not needed here anyway.” I of course couldn’t hear the actual words over the noise of the wind, The Hook and my crunching footsteps, but all five of them turned and headed back towards me, the Segway boys having to drag their comic vehicles through the snow.

I kept my head down and crunched on, and sensed one fleeting half-thought to challenge me, then just determination to get back to Baz’s place. I almost sniggered at what they’d find there, then remembered I was hurt, hungry, wet and singed, and chasing a missing person who might well be possessed by one of the original Fallen himself.

I was out of ideas, except the vague “get in there” the driver had thought. In where? He’d nodded his head, or planned to, but to where? He was going to nod diagonally to his right…but where was that in relation to me? I still had the mental picture—these things take a while to fade, so just needed to calculate where HE was facing, and where that might have sent his flunkey. Now my head really hurt. I changed course and walked to the smoldering car, not getting too close but placing myself where the driver had been.

His nod would have been towards through the driving smoky flakes, the ten-storey block of the old tunnel ventilation shaft. I’d never been there, but knew that in the early days, army snipers had been perched on top with orders to bring down anything with wings that tried to enter or leave The Hook or The Park across the water. Now it was right on the border and in theory, locked up secure. I sighed and trudged towards it.

In the movies, you always cut to a scene where the hero is inside wherever he planned to be. The usual little things are never a bother. Well, movies suck. Twenty minutes later, in equal parts numb and sooty, I’d found the doorway after ripping my pants on a jagged fence and falling in a pothole that busted my partially healed ankle again. There was the chunky officially sealed lock, guaranteed proof against any tampering. Which fell into the snow in pieces when I nudged it with my gloved hand. Nice. I pushed the door open, with a creak that totally gave my position away to anyone inside. Can’t say that’s not proactive, Ovid. Inside was a mess of things that I wasn’t about to shine my flashlight onto: decades of debris and illegal occupation at some stage. Also, there had been pigeons. Now, if you think the old pre-War pigeons were bad, you haven’t seen the ones that live in The Hook now. Pigeons from Hell, to steal Robert E. Howard’s line. They were big, mean, smelly and could shit their own bodyweight in a day. Acidic. I stepped carefully.

After another ten minutes’ sliding around cursing I found the staircase down. Old, rusted, slippy, and spiral. I’d say I took a deep breath and descended, but in truth I was trying to breathe only through my mouth because of the smell, so off I went, gasping. It was a long way down, and I fell on my ass twice. Finally, I stumbled out into a tunnel. A huge tunnel, that was most definitely not flooded. There were even lights, here and there. To one side, where the Red Hook exit would have been, a solid metal wall, rusted and glistening wet. In the other direction, a nightmare tangle of burned out cars and truck skeletons resting in a couple of feet of stagnant black water. Also, bones. Seared, twisted, big bones. Not human, either. This was where they slugged it out at the end, using angelfire and brimstone. That melts human corpses, but angel and demon bones are made of something else entirely. I heard that materials science came on by about a century overnight, after some engineers got hold of a few remains. I also heard that the angels and demons take a very dim view of humans who trade in their bones. So here I was looking out over a sea of priceless skeletons, none of which I would touch with a bargepole.

Lucky for me, the tunnel had a narrow walkway along one side, raised up above the ancient channel. I wasn’t so sure I even wanted to be bumping into Winter down here, assuming she had Baz on board. But that was the thing: no demon could get into Battery Park, in any shape or form. I had about 9,000 feet of thinking time ahead of me.

I’d like to say I had a great idea along the way, but all I did was limp along for what seemed an eternity, trying not to look too closely at the highway full of melted bones. The occasional lights had started off red, but the further away from The Hook I trudged, the more they started to turn yellowish. A door partway along was, I thought, the bottom of the ventilation tower that sat off Governor’s Island. I had a moment of thinking I’d climb up, but then reckoned I still hadn’t in any way redeemed myself, so was better off underground. Anyway, I was genuinely curious now. As a precaution I slipped my gun’s Hook clip into a pocket and replaced it with the angel-themed one. But much like The Hook, if you got to the point in The Park that you were seriously thinking of shooting one of the supernaturals, your goose was already pretty well cooked.

My best guess, which was a pretty poor one, was that whoever Baz was off gallivanting around in, it wasn’t Winter. Why? Because, logic. I know most physical laws only passingly apply to angels and demons, but a few are cast iron. Travel, for one: you do get approved and licensed travelers from both the zones, but the further they go from concentrations of their own kind, they weaker they become. When the gates to Heaven and Hell opened in the War, it was open season, and there were scores of hellish and heavenly hotspots around the globe. I’ve even been to a couple, and let me tell you, the angels and demons our religions cooked up are way less inventive than the ones some countries managed. I’m in no rush to get back to New Delhi. When the gates shut again without warning, these zones mostly evaporated or shrank. Also, few recovering countries really wanted powerful immortal beings fluttering around freely, not after the damage done, and so various religions’ own secret orders were dusted off and became monitors. Basically, most every angel and demon outside their home turfs was tracked and followed. And those possessing mortals for a joyride were sure to be caught sooner rather than later, because they gave off a signature that was visible for miles around, to those who could see it. And since the War, there were a load more humans who could see this shit.

And don’t get me started on the Moonflowers. That’s a whole other podcast. But I guess there’s some misinformation I need to clear up. First, the whole Moonflower thing is not cool. Moonflowers aren’t like those sparkle-vampires from the old movies or the demi-gods from the modern entertaincasts. They aren’t the X-Men. They’re just poor schmucks who had the bad luck to be born or conceived (or both) close to where a hellish and heavenly zone overlap. Not IN the zones—these saps have no special abilities at all, other than to be able to live there. But there’s something about the ebb and flow of the conflicting energies (do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Because I don’t) that makes special babies. Oh, and by special I mean 99.999 per cent are screaming short-lived monsters. And most of the others are mad as a brush. But some, once in a few hundred thousand, have a little something. And that’s that. It’s a curse. And don’t be going and assuming that’s me outing myself as a Moonflower. I’m not. Not really.

So anyway, where did that leave Winter? Baz’s driver had dropped her off, with the sure knowledge she was headed over to The Park, assuming her costume was the clue here. Maybe Baz WAS along for the ride but bailed out somewhere down here? Right now he’d be coming to and wondering why his room was all shot up and his servants dead.

So, Winter had an appointment in The Park. I should have done some research on her, as I was beginning to think I was missing something huge. I resolved that assuming I came up in lil’-heaven in one piece, I’d try and find Jinx and Jane Doe, who might have some insight. Not that I wanted to go asking them, but beggars and choosers and all that.

Finally, weary and sore and wanting nothing but my bed, I reached a rusty steel wall much like the one at the opposite end. The big difference was there was a wide concrete platform in front, lit by bright clear bulbs, and showing signs of recent activity, judging by how clean it was. Someone had hacked a hole in the tunnel wall, about eight feet in diameter and lined well, if not neatly, with concrete. I peered in, expecting another tough climb on shaky rungs, but realized it was an elevator shaft. I’ve always been the kid who pressed the button without thinking about it, and this was no exception. There was a clank, a distant electric whine and a few seconds a stout steel elevator cage appeared. No drama, which is how I like things. 30 seconds after that, I was stepping off onto a rough concrete shelf that sloped up into the gloom. I shrugged, adjusted my stained and torn parka as best I could, wiped some blood and grit off my soaked pants and squared my none-too-impressive shoulders.

It doesn’t do to be easily surprised in my line of work: once you’ve seen demons and angels in a bar-fight (ok, separate bar fights, but it’s fine to exaggerate a little) you tend to take most things in your stride. But still, coming up through the floor in the back room of a chi-chi diner full of angels was not what I’d expected. It wasn’t what the human cooks in the back had expected, either, but I wasn’t in The Hook any more, so rather than immediate assault, there was lots of whispering. I skedaddled out the front, past a dozen tutting angels, and was suddenly in the clean fresh air. And it is clean and fresh, mark my words. For all The Hook’s toxic smog doesn’t really affect me, it still stinks. And over here in The Park, the air smells like everything you ever wanted air to smell like, which is really not much at all. It was dark and snowing here, too: the angels like to observe the seasons, but the snow was gentle, white and clean. It didn’t even melt and slide down your neck. Streetlights were all giving off a pure white glow, too, and really, the mix of old buildings scattered through the park made for the prefect Christmas card.

Except for me: a shambling, battered and filthy blot on the landscape, like the result of one of those smart-ass cartoonists that draw robots on Turner paintings. Even at this hour the Park was busy, but thanks to careful and expensive permitting, a rota and queue system that would make Disney World weep with envy, and some very heavy handed optical effects, it looked just about the perfect amount of busy. There were a few animals gamboling in the snow, too: a bear cub or two, and I swear, a panda that was sliding down a little hill on its fat ass, to the delight of a couple of rich tourists. Angels were wandering, too: some arm in arm with paying guests, a few casually keeping an eye on stuff, and giving me looks that were a step down from disdainful. That’s the thing about angels: no matter their type (they go from the ambling cheery human-like ones to the twice-life-sized winged warrior angels, and a lot of variants in between) they all look a little like you’re just shit on their shoes. Well, they do to me, anyways: they seem to be adored by the humans who paid to come in here and get rested, young and healthy again. Did I mention the Spa day-rates here? They start at $100k and go up fast. Fat old shits go in and thin young shits come out. And the angels get rich. Except, it isn’t that simple, because there are clauses connected with entry to this peculiar little slice o’ heaven, and one of them is that if the angels find you wanting, morally, then you are subject to their judgment. That doesn’t seem to mean much, most of the time: I’ve seen more than a few seemingly corrupt politicos come and avail themselves of the facilities. But once in a while, one will just vanish, and that’s that. And sometimes, Gabe or one of the other boss angels will descend on the Spa in a righteous anger and drive out all the rich fatties, to usher in a legion of raggedy sick poor people from outside the Wall. Next day, it’s back to business as usual. I swear, I sometimes think I understand the devils better than the angels.

Right now, though, I was sure I understood just about nothing at all. Winter had surely come up in the diner in the park, but then what? If she’d been possessed, there’d have been wrathful angels all over the place. And if not, then she’d either been snatched by the angel security or had some right to be there, in which case I might never find her.

Dispirited, I wandered towards the Wall. Now, visitors to the Park don’t see the wall, as such. It just (I’m told) kinda blends into the heavenly vista. Us freaks, though, we aren’t fooled by these tricks, and to me, it was an incongruous 100-foot-tall elegantly contoured concrete cliff rising smoothly up along the edge of what had been the promenade. The main sea gate was just ahead, so I headed there, from want of any better ideas.

The gate was wedged open by a shipping container that had been dropped from a dockside crane, and what with the cluster of armed angels, a knot of bloodied or prone humans dressed in black, and a surging mob on the other side, it was my kind of scene. What made it even more entertaining was the sight of a diminutive and clearly livid Jinx standing atop the container with a bullhorn, shouting. Jane Doe was standing off to one side, being yelled at by Gabe. I wasn’t about to get too close: Gabe was old-school, and has a temper. But he’s an angel, I hear you say? Well, yes, but he’s a righteous warrior angel, and an asshole. Also he’s ten feet tall and has wings wider than a basketball court, and a flaming sword. Also an eye-patch, which made his remaining beautiful eye look even more scary. An eye-patch, yup, that’s what I said. In the battle of New Jersey, it’s said Gabe stood off a demonic horde solo, and lost an eye in the process of slaying their leader, Semyaza. Why he didn’t just regrow it is anyone’s guess. People tend not to ask.

Right now, Gabe was shouting. And Gabe shouts like Morgan Freeman sounds in old movies, but 100 times louder. Come to think of it, Gabe looks a lot like a young beefed-up Morgan Freeman. Jane Doe was just staring at him, blank-faced, which was Doe’s thing: even the angriest of people tend to eventually run out of steam when faced with that impassive attention. Gabe’s terrible flaming sword was out of  its man-high scabbard, which was bad, but pointed down at the ground, which was less bad. And not in full-flame hewing mode, so much as just the pilot light on. He was chewing Doe out.

He knew it wasn’t our fault that the Satanists tried to break in (again), but judging by the scattered body parts, he’d lost his rag and was trying to blame someone. I saw Doe nod, and point to me. That was one of her skills: she knew you were there without looking. I didn’t try and get a reading off either of them at this range, and anyway, the body language was clear: Doe was doing a version of the “and here’s one of our men now: he has a lead…” And Gabe was settling down a little. Lucky for me he didn’t summon me: Doe can lie to the best and worst of them, but a boss angel like Gabe would see right through yours truly. For the briefest of seconds I considered going over and blurting out all I knew about the tunnel, but then wisely shut my mouth: for all I knew, Gabe was in on whatever racket the tunnel was part of.

He turned his majestic back on Doe, and she impassively shrugged and loped towards me, a lanky figure in mismatched tactical fatigues from our endless stock of surplus.

“You look like I feel,” she muttered.

“I feel worse than I look,” I replied.

She raised an eyebrow dispassionately and gestured behind her. “Hope you’re having a more successful night than we are, though we got a message that Ovid is in the infirmary and you’re MIA.”

She paused for effect and added: “How did you get from The Hook to here?”

“Long story,” I said wearily. “But that missing person? I think she’s here…” I fished out the crumpled and stained photo and passed it over. Doe took it with a look of distaste.

“Sure, I know her. Some bigwig’s kid. She’s a regular fixture at the Forum, one of Han’s protégés…she’s very intense, big into the Homelands movement. Didn’t know she slummed it in The Hook.”

I groaned inside, and also outside. The Homelands fanatics were bad news. It boiled down to the simple enough idea that all the remnants of the Heavenly and Hellish forces on Earth could be corralled into one handy place. And then be given complete freedom in that place. Simple, huh? Except there was a real shortage of countries willing to step up and offer to evacuate for this to happen. Particularly those small-to-medium-sized islands with nice climates. The scheme was backed by a small but vocal element among the demon and angel communities, who were very much of the opinion that they should just take the territory and settle the legalities later. Well, that explained Winter’s connections with Baz and Han, but it was the first I’d heard of either name being in the Homelands camp. Baz did very well running most of the rackets in The Hook, and Han was about as high an angel as you could find: these sorts tended to not even acknowledge that they were on Earth, let alone plan real-estate deals. In a way I was happy enough: if this was political I just needed to track Winter down, give her a metaphorical slap on the wrist and deliver her to daddy. Then I could punt it all upstairs, let the Captain and his bosses decide what to do with it all.

“Ok, thanks,” I said with a little genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll head up to the Forum now.”

“Hold on,” Doe said with what might have been mild amusement in her voice, “Jinx wants to say hullo.”

I turned with heavy heart: sure enough, the tiny angry figure atop the container had spotted me. In typical enough Jinx fashion she shouted “Hey, asshole! You still alive? We hoped you’d gotten a pitchfork up your skinny ass!” What she forgot to do was lower the bullhorn, so she shouted this at about a thousand times the volume she intended, and everything went quiet. The angels frowned on profanity, especially involving their demonic foes. I saw Gabe turn and stride toward Jinx, who simultaneously shrank into herself and somehow puffed up with defiance.

“She’s going to need that luck,” I said under my breath, waving cheerfully at the mortified furious figure atop the container.

“I think I’ll wait over here for a bit,” Doe said causally. “Don’t get yourself killed on account of a rich kid, Petal.”

The Forum was in what had been the Stock Exchange building in Downtown Manhattan. The Park’s border took in Wall Street, across to Rector, jinking back and forth, the wall maintaining its height as it sliced into buildings and across junctions. Bankers were dislodged to make way for wankers, I heard Ovid say once, and I’d claimed the line as mine when he wasn’t around. The angels had done a bit of landscaping and shown the same love of soaring modern design that some demons had (this was not something they liked pointed out), so some of the more boring office blocks had been replaced by lovely white arching spires. A steady stream of politicians and spiritual leaders came and went.

They’d cleared out the junk on the actual main floor, needless to say, and it was now a very airy pleasant place to spend way too much time arguing about any old nonsense. Mostly it was angels, as their custom of all speaking loudly at the same time without stopping tended to confuse mortals. But a few die-hard agitators and angel-fanatics were always in evidence. This winter’s night the building was all dark, and snow was building up in (aesthetically pleasing) drifts in front of the doors. I stood there for a minute, just soaking up the healing air, and girding my loins for a visit to Han’s pad, when I heard a sound from inside. A voice, agitated, then another much deeper one. I sighed, and with a mental shrug, went in as quietly as I could.

“It hurts!” the first voice, echoing off the polished stone walls and floor. I couldn’t see anything yet: the faint heavenly glow that permeated angel territory was low-key and even my eyes took took time to adjust. I’d remembered that there was a balcony level, and padded up the stairs and crept forward to a doorway that would give me a view of the proceedings. That voice was a young woman’s: educated, indignant and distressed.

“You have to give it time,” a deeper resonant voice protested, without much conviction. “We knew it would be a difficult adjustment.”

“She’s right,” a new voice, harsh and angry, chimed in, “we cannot control this!”

“You have to leave!” the woman’s voice, Winter, I was sure, high and panicked. “I’m losing my mind!”

“We can’t just leave!” the deep voice, “you know what was involved, and what will happen here!”

“We need time!” the angry voice, “I cannot be cast out in this place!”

“Please!” Winter’s anguished wail hurt my head.

Now, I’m no hero, but nor am I a coward, and for reasons I am not about to get into here, I have zero tolerance for folks of any nature who mistreat kids. So, in typical fashion, with no plan, I stood up and shouted down at the group: “Police! That’s enough! Nobody move!”

Except the pearlescent light showed just one person standing in the middle of the room. Winter. She turned to look up at me, hope on her face, and blurted out: “Make them leave!”

A split second later her face twisted into a haughty anger, and the harsh voice came out her mouth: “Who invited this feeble excuse for a human?”

Before the words had even finished echoing off the walls, Winter’s face became calm and serene, and the resonant voice spoke: “You need to leave, mortal!”

Like I said, it doesn’t do to be easily surprised in my job. But I was pretty flabbergasted by this: unless I was mistaken, I was looking at the impossible: a double possession. Baz and Han were inside Winter’s body, alongside a conscious Winter, which was another oddity: possessions are pretty much meant for one entity to be in the driving seat. When it’s a demon, the original inhabitant is crammed away in a distance corner, bound and impotent. The angels pretend it’s more collaborative, but that’s a fiction: while they kinder to the host bodies, they don’t play well with others.

I tried to get a read on them, but it was like looking into the end of a fire hose and then turning the water on. The three of them were fighting to say something. I snapped out of it and opted for the old fashioned way: bluster.

“Unless someone tells me the what’s going on,” I yelled, “I’ll call in the cavalry. And you three can explain to your bosses and mine!”

That did it. Winter slumped a bit, the anger gone, just pain left. Which was a bit of a relief: I’d worried that Baz or Han might take the helm and leap up here and tear my head off: the host body gained some measure of the possessor’s powers, and I was shouting at two entities who probably hadn’t heard a voice raised against them in centuries.

“Who are you?” Winter asked plaintively.

“He’s nobody,” Baz replied, “a cop who shouldn’t have gotten nosy.”

“Winter is right,” Han chimed in. “This is not stable, and my own security forces will very soon sense what is going on.”

Tumblers clicked into place in my head, and I felt a weight lift. “I know what’s going on, and I can’t think of a good reason not to call the authorities, see what they think of your plans for a revolution.”

I saw surprise on Winter’s face, and indulged myself in a little gloat: “You think you’re so smart nobody can work this out? With both of you in there, you thought you could roam the world unseen, making your Homeland plan happen. Probably about to fly off and buy Madagascar, or New Zealand!”

I could see the medals coming my way now, and the newscast headlines. Heroic and Under-appreciated Cop Saves The World.

Then Winter laughed. So did Baz and Han. Not in recognition of my cleverness, either, but at me.

“How did this chump even find us?” Baz spat.

“I know of this one,” said Han speculatively, looking up at me. “He isn’t too bright, obviously, but he has a shred of talent that we are watching with some very minor interest. They call him Petal.”

“Hey, I’m maybe not the smartest,” I said, “but I’m not the one stuck in a double possession in the middle of the night.”

Han nodded: “Impudent, but fair. It’s not about the Homelands. ‘Baz’ and I go back a long way, to before the Fall. We were, then, friends, if you can believe it. And since things here on Earth took the turn they did, we have established contact again.”

“For what? To unite Heaven and Hell’s forces on Earth?”

Baz snorted with laughter again. “You watch too many movies, asshole! We…”

Han cut in: “No cursing!”

“Sorry,” Baz harrumphed and went on: “Screw…sorry…forget about those grand ideas, Petal. Do you think we like being stranded in tiny miserable enclaves on this ball of dirt? We used to roam the universe!”

“What he means,” Han said, “ is that we are trapped here in these pathetic little zoos of our own making. We wanted to be free, for a while, or at least as free as one can be on this dreary plane.”

Finally I thought I might have something right: “And you can’t do that in a single possession, because it’s too easily detected.”

Baz/Winter gave me a slow handclap. “You might some day even solve a case, Petal. Yes, all we wanted was to be free for a short time.”

“Like a vacation?”

“Nothing like your pathetic notions of holidaying, you jumped-up ape!” Baz raged.

“Steady, now…. This one is just needling you,” Han said calmly.

Winter herself stirred and took the driving seat: “And I wanted to help,” she said in a small voice. “So I accommodated Baz first, then Han at the end of the tunnel, right before we came up in here. It needed balance, for it to be undetectable.”

“Except it’s not working,” I chipped in. “Is it?”

A shake of the head. “It’s not stable. If they stay in me, I’ll lose my mind.”

“And I can’t leave from here,” Baz grunted. “This body needs to be somewhere neutral for us to withdraw to our own bodies.

“I sense my kind are aware of an imbalance,” Han said. “Time is short. We need to get back to neutral ground.”

“You need to get out of my head now!” Winter said, hysteria in her voice.

“She’s right,” Han said. “If she loses her mind, Baz, we are cast loose. There is no guarantee we would find our way back to our physical forms.”

They all looked up at me with Winter’s beautiful tear-stained face. I shuffled uncomfortably, hands stuffed in pockets as I wracked my tired brain. I could call in a ride, but it would take time and angel security would be all over us when we tried to get aboard. Then I had my second good idea of the night. Well ok, it was more chance than actually anything I thought of, but still, I’ll take credit. My fingers brushed against the hellstones I’d grabbed from the snow. I extended my hand, the chain with the inset red gems in my palm, and the scarlet light lit up the hall.

There was a moment of silence.

“We will be at this wretch’s mercy if we go into those!” Baz shouted. “What if he never releases us?”

“Whatever his limitations, and there are many,” he is not dishonest,” Han said. “And it would allow us to go unnoticed.”

“So long as Winter keeps us close,” Baz said grudgingly. “But these are dangerous: we might not ever be able to totally extricate ourselves!”

“I think I hear the flap of feathery wings,” I said as casually as I could. “Don’t take too long to decide.”

My brilliant plan worked about as long as it took to get out the front door of the grand old building. I’d reluctantly gone down to the main floor and handed the necklace over. Winter had slipped it over her head and then breathed deeply when the gems touched her skin. She smiled in relief.

“I can still feel them,” she explained, “they’re still in my head,” but only part of them. Now where?”

“Back to the tunnel,” I said. “We just need to look like we’re out for a stroll. And keep that necklace inside your tunic!”

Except that there was an angel security patrol coming in as we came out. Not angels themselves, thankfully, but three Parkborn humans in white body armor with stun guns.

“They’re in there!” I gasped, “they attacked us!”

The leader stared at me, then looked at Winter, and his face softened when she nodded and tears flowed. They bustled in, all heroic, leaving us standing in the snow, astonished. We ran for it, which is a sight easier in angelic snow than Hook snow, or even regular snow.

We put a block between us then slowed to a deliberate casual walk, as more patrols rushed past. With the big bosses mostly secured in the gems, Winter was presumably giving off a regular human scent. But it was only a matter of time before they realized they’d been duped somehow, and recalled a shabby young man and a crying visitor.

We hit the edge of the park, and I considered just heading right out the gate, but in the time I’d been gone the container had been lifted away and the massive doors closed. A cleanup crew was hosing and vacuuming the grass where the dissected Satanists had been. The diner it was: we strolled in and I made a show of looking for someone, bypassing the mildly curious customers: they tended to look at me, get suspicious but take me for a cop, or some other tainted official from outside, then saw Winter and nodded in recognition. Clearly there was a whole upper-class social network going on here.

“Through the back,” I whispered, and pushed the swinging doors open, walking right into the broad chest of a waiting warrior angel. Shit.

He/she was as surprised as I was, I think. But you tend to recover faster when you’re an immortal with the strength of ten men. I looked sideways at Winter, desperately hoping Han might pop up and bluster his way past, but he and Baz were lying low. Made sense, as there was no reasonable explanation for either one of them to be inside Winter’s head.

I was out of ideas. Again. Except ‘be proactive’. Ovid’s annoying and vague advice, that kept popping up to taunt me. It wouldn’t do me any good to know what the angel was about to do: he/she was clearly about to grab me, and strong though I am, that’s not a grip a mortal can break. Nor did I have the reflexes to get my gun out, even if I was minded to try and shoot an angel here on its home turf.

Proactive. Like, how? I focused, aware I had a sliver of time in which to come up with something. He/she was indeed thinking of just grabbing me and holding on, then doing the same for Winter. Simple, and flawless. I saw his/her plan, centered on me just standing there like I was now, open mouthed. Desperation gave me a dumb idea. What if for once I wasn’t about to just stand there like a chump? I tensed to jump back. And I saw his/her next three seconds change: a missed grab and then a longer lunge that nailed me. I changed my mind, to leap at him/her and I saw the future change: a moment of imbalance. I was out of time, so I jumped, and those big arms went over my head and I slammed into his/her chest, sending us both to the floor in the cramped kitchen. My head was sore, and I saw the next move: me being pinned to the tiles and pounded some. I changed tack, and planned to hit the angel in the face. My future changed, the punch doing little and the return blow breaking my jaw. I thought of the least tactically useful move: jumping to my feet. That would surprise the angel, and buy me a moment.

So I did it. From there, through a blinding headache, I ran through a dozen moves, most ending in my being knocked down, or out, or killed. One, the most stupid, and complex, had a future that didn’t end in me being dragged away, and so that’s what I did: I scrambled over a table and threw a tray of utensils at the angel. To an observer the next 20 seconds might even have looked slick: to me it was a series of clumsy and unlikely actions, each separated by a frenzy of options and decisions. I swept a pan of water off the nearest stove, drenching the angel, then started to leap over him/her before abruptly stopping and kicking him/her in the head. I ducked and feinted and fell and spun like a madman, taking a kick to the shin that broke a bone, and a punch in the eye that drew a lot of blood. But I landed a score of punches and blows with fists, cookware and even a poke in the eye with a forefinger. In the end, it was Winter who saved the day: the winning option was where I allowed the furious angel to backhand me across the face and in doing so turn his/her back on Winter, who had been discounted from the fight on account of her appearance. She did as I knew she would, and picked up a heavy skillet and hit the angel across the back of the head with it in a double-handed swing. Now, remember what I said about a host having some of their possessor’s powers? Well, Winter was clearly still channeling Han or more likely Baz, and hit that angel on the back of the head so hard the thick steel bent, like in the cartoons. He/she went down silently.

That was the end of that. We hauled up the trapdoor and slithered down into the dark. I think I remember making it to the top of the elevator when the shock of my injuries and the blinding headache got the better of me. I remember saying “Do I have a nosebleed?” and Winter looking at me oddly, and replying “there’s so much other blood I really can’t tell.” From the feeling in my head, a lot more than blood was leaking from my nose. I can honestly say I’ve never felt pain like it, as if someone had hinged up the top of my skull and was rooting around inside with a hot rusty fork. But worse. If there was a positive, it was that it made all my other injuries hurt less by comparison.

After that it was all a blur: a very long agonizing hobble along the edge of the tunnel, and me rabbiting on about the exit that would take us up to Governor’s Island, if it wasn’t sealed off. Then I blacked out. In the movies, that’s a smooth transition to a scene where we rejoin the hero in a crisp hospital bed and the credits run. For me, it was a segue to being prodded awake by Winter, who was yelling that I was too heavy to carry, and could I please wake the hell up and climb myself. When finally we got to the top, the door of the abandoned tower was locked, and so my last coherent act was to shoot at it. It made a load of noise, and fell off, and we stumbled out into the good honest regular snow coating the little pier that led to the island. Then I passed out properly as Winter cradled my head on her lap. Actually that last was a lie: she just let me fall over in the snow, and the last thing I heard was her bleating about being cold.

◊ ◊ ◊

“So just to be clear—and feel free to not interrupt until I’m done—you invaded the home of one of The Hook’s senior hellish dignitaries, shot the place up, got a woefully misguided fellow officer grievously wounded, blew up a car, sneaked into The Park through a tunnel that doesn’t exist, aided a possessed human and her unidentified demonic and heavenly passengers to escape justice, knocked a warrior angel unconscious and then somehow brought the aforementioned human here to the Island, where you offered her sanctuary, bringing down on my head the wrath of senior officials from both camps, plus a livid ambassador and a host of official complaints? You will note that that question mark at the end of my long sentence there is not actually a question, Petal.”

I could tell the Captain was pissed by the way he spoke even more slowly and deliberately than usual. I’d not actually been in his private office before: it was very nicely appointed, and in a beautifully refurbished mansion in the nicest part of the island. I was still on crutches, but we heal fast, us freaks, and soon I’d be able to see out of both eyes again. Ovid was sitting stiffly on a couch, a huge plaster cast covering his chest and shoulder, and Ember was standing on a fireproof mat, smoldering furiously. Outside, it was a nice night, really, clear and crisp with the snow sparkling where it lay. It was a welcome change from the hospital.

“Yes?” I ventured carefully. I’d had a nice view of the landing pads from my hospital bed, and had seen Baz and Han touch down and carefully ignore each other. Winter had visited me once, trailed by a couple of stern-faced Invigilators. She’d stared me in my good eye as she said that neither she nor the Invigilators knew who’d possessed her, or how she came to be where she was. Also, that it was too dangerous to remove the hellstone necklace she wore in order to find out. “There’s tiny traces of them inside, so I’m told,” she had said with a straight face. But no-one knows what or who they are.” She hadn’t asked how I was feeling.

Ovid had come to see me, too, grunting when I asked how he was, and unexpectedly slapping me on the shoulder and laughing at me. Then he left, without having spoken.

“Yes,” the Captain said. “Really, I have had the most interesting week. And it’s not every week we gain a reluctant and loudly entitled recruit whose family connections are so prestigious, and who comes with a piece of jewelry with supernatural occupants. I’d make her your junior partner to teach you a lesson, but you’re so junior it is not technically possible to have someone lower down the ladder than you.”

The Captain sighed: “So what do you think happens next, Petal?”

“We all laugh and the end credits roll?” I suggested hopefully.

“More like you get busted to traffic in The Hook,” he replied.

“We don’t have traffic patrols, chief,” I pointed out. “There are no driving rules there.”

“Well, I think you’re the man to change that as soon as you’re mended. Such as, in two days’ time,” he said brightly.

I turned to hobble out, and paused, because I knew what he was about to say: “One thing, Petal: how DID you manage to best an angel warrior. So far as I know, it used to take a whole squad to manage such a thing. A squad with heavy caliber weapons.”

Ovid grunted agreement.

I thought before answering. “I was proactive,” I said. “Sir.”

As I shuffled away, I heard Ovid grunt in laughter.

I paused on the porch, the sky to my right was white, to my left, red. Overhead, it was a rosy pink. “Best of both worlds,” I muttered to myself, enjoying the moment. Then Jinx rounded the corner, caught sight of me and grinned. I sighed, focused, and I saw lots of possibilities for the next three seconds. My head hurt.

—«»-«»-«»—

How It All Started

Once there was a potent, erratic
particle that contained everything.
And because it contained everything,
it was entirely, acutely self-aware.
It wobbled around massively, creating
space and destroying time, preserving
momentum and reversing entropy.
It played with the speed of light,
just for giggles, and let it run
at a million wavelengths of orange
peel per 9 billion dragonfly flaps.
That was a hoot. Then it fiddled
with vacuum impedance and
the polyester suit electron charges
for a while longer, just because it could.
It got bored, it got excited, it got
forgetful, it recovered. It split, it
combined, it undulated lasciviously.
Eventually, it decided to die, just to
see what would happen. So, it created
a
deep
singularity
and jumped off the edge, falling
at variable speeds until it found one it liked.
Its bottom hit the bottom while its top
was still at the top, and it squirted fragments
of matter that became stars and coffee and
dogs and–oddly, in only two places–unicorns
and flying monkeys. Humans came later,
and because the clever ones liked fireworks,
they grossly misnamed the Big Squirt. That
was ok. Eventually the octopi will wise up
and get their shot at physics; then we’ll see
a thing or eight.

— Michael Kulp

Michael Kulp is a writer and father of two mostly grown children who have survived his shenanigans through smarts they inherited from their mother.

His creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in consumer magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. His first book, Random Stones: A book of poetry was published in 2016.

His work has been included in the following venues: Adventure Racing Magazine, Ancient Paths Literary Magazine, The Backwoodsman, Barrow County (GA) News, Blink-Ink, Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine (UK), Firefly Magazine*, Friday Flash, Fiction, Gravel, Gyroscope Review, Haiku Journal, Ink, Sweat & Tears*, KEROSENE 2012—Burning Man in New York City, Microfiction Monday Magazine, Micropoets Society, Stripped Lit 500*, Three Line Poetry (anthology), Travel Thru History, We Said Go Travel, Where the Mind Dwells (anthology), Yellow Chair Review.

 

*Accepted for upcoming publication.

More at www.MichaelKulpWriter.blogspot.com

 

Editor’s Notes: To complement “How It All Started,” the image was chosen from the paper, “Observation of a New Particle with a Mass of 125 GeV.” The event was recorded with the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector* in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of Z bosons, one of which subsequently decays to a pair of electrons (green lines and green towers) and the other Z decays to a pair of muons (red lines). The event could also be due to known standard model background processes.

 

*The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) smashes groups of protons together at close to the speed of light: 40 million times per second and with seven times the energy of the most powerful accelerators built up to now. Many of these will just be glancing blows but some will be head on collisions and very energetic. When this happens some of the energy of the collision is turned into mass and previously unobserved, short-lived particles – which could give clues about how Nature behaves at a fundamental level – fly out and into the detector.

 

CMS is a particle detector that is designed to see a wide range of particles and phenomena produced in high-energy collisions in the LHC. Like a cylindrical onion, different layers of detectors measure the different particles, and use this key data to build up a picture of events at the heart of the collision.

 

Scientists then use this data to search for new phenomena that will help to answer questions such as: What is the Universe really made of and what forces act within it? And what gives everything substance? CMS will also measure the properties of previously discovered particles with unprecedented precision, and be on the lookout for completely new, unpredicted phenomena. (Citation source: http://cms.web.cern.ch/)

Arson With a Smile

I keep a little sun in my pocket, a little
ball of warmth, a little light for days
stuck inside staring out the window
dripping with self-doubt and frustration
to burn a hole through the walls
melting shower curtains to run naked
into the fading rain, climb the red side
of a full rainbow stretching into black
holes waiting like a secret path
where gumdrop forests breed ruckuses
of dragons flapping wantonly
among the moss under ancient
trees sprouted from starlight borrowed
from the stash Prometheus stole
from the sun, hidden in pockets
he sewed himself onto his socks
where no god would think to look
so that even chained at the mercy
of eagles one glance down to his feet
ignited fireworks in his heart

— John Reinhart

 

An arsonist by trade, John Reinhart lives on a farmlette in Colorado with his wife and children. He is a Frequent Contributor at the Songs of Eretz and his chapbook, encircled, is available from Prolific Press. More of his work is available at http://www.patreon.com/johnreinhart

Editor’s Notes: The image of Prometheus is from an Italian article MITI GRECI | PROMETEO, IL GIGANTE CHE AMAVA L’UMANITÀ (GREEK MYTHS | PROMETHEUS, THE GIANT WHO LOVED HUMANITY):

La mitologia greca è ricca di storie bellissime: battaglie, eroi, magie, tradimenti. La nostra cultura è cresciuta su queste leggende. Come quella di Prometeo, il titano ribelle che rubò il fuoco per donarlo agli uomini e…

Greek mythology is full of beautiful stories: battles, heroes, spells, betrayals. Our culture has grown out of these legends. Like that of Prometheus, the rebellious Titan who stole fire and gave it to men and …

http://www.focusjunior.it/scuola/miti-greci-prometeo-il-gigante-che-amava-lumanita-prima-parte

The Father Paradox

clockby Judith Field

Dad always insisted that there was something priceless in the house. Towards the end, words that might have told me what and where, abandoned him. I couldn’t see anything worth more than a few bob, and neither could the house clearance dealer.

I stood by the kitchen window looking at the back wall separating the garden from the churchyard where he was buried. The sky was solid grey and a gust of wind bent the branches of the trees into arcs. Bloody English summer, I bet the sun was baking the pavement in Barcelona. I’d be looking at orchids, thyme and hibiscus, if I could buy a place there. But not on a medical physicist’s salary. Dad left his entire estate to the University. Congratulations, folks, don’t spend the whole fifty quid at once.

Archie, gardener and churchwarden, was in the final stages of wrenching a rose bush out of Dad’s flower bed. I banged on the window. “Come in and have a drink when you’ve finished.”

He wrapped the rose’s root ball in an old sack and stomped into the kitchen. I found a bottle of lemonade, not quite empty, inside the fridge. I poured him a glass, put the empty bottle on the table, turned off the fridge and pulled out the plug, ready for the new tenants.

Archie downed the lot and leaned back. “You sure you’ll be able to plant these roses properly at your place? Get someone to help you.”

“How hard can it be? I’ll do it on my own, I’m a big girl now.” Once both your parents are dead, you finally feel like you’ve grown up. Even when you’re in your fifties.

“I’ll go and dig that dwarf apple tree out for you next,” Archie said, “but then I’ll have to get off, I’ve got more gardens to do. Get another apple if you want fruit. I told your Dad to buy more than one.”

“He wanted to plant a mini-orchard. That tree was going to be the first of many. I’ve got to take it with me. The next tenant might want to chop it down, I couldn’t stand the thought of that. Dad loved his garden.”

“Oh, aye. Good at digging, your Dad was. I suppose he had to be, in his line of work. Bit different from Egypt here, though. I remember him planting this tree, just before he went mad…er, was taken ill. You know, there’s a lot of it about, in this little street. All started around about the same time as your Dad.” Archie pursed his lips and looked upwards. “There’s four others, no…five. Going downhill, really fast.”

“I suppose that’s what happens when folk retire to a place like this. All the same age, all getting senile.”

Archie shrugged. “Dunno about that. Kevin two doors down, he’s got the dee-mentia. He’s only forty-five. I’m going to do his garden next, sweep up the leaves.”

“That’s kind of you.”

He smiled. “Now your Dad, he never let the leaves lie, I’ll give him that. Always had a bonfire going.” He got up and headed for the garden. “See you, Kathleen. I’ll be back in a bit, help you get those books into the car.”

Dad used to call me Kat, but that stopped when people only he could see began coming through the bedroom wall when he lay awake. Then, he called me Kathleen, the Thief, who stole from him. He would get up in the night to hide money around the house–half a £50 note among the pages of a book and the other half inside the toaster. I told him he didn’t have money to burn. “Burn, yes,” he said. I wrinkled my nose as I remembered the time he set the kitchen alight. Saved by the smoke alarm.

Towards the end, he forgot my name completely, and the places where he had hidden things. One day he pulled every book off the shelves that lined the walls and I found him throwing them across the room. “It’s all true,” he muttered, “priceless.” That again. But nothing had turned up and now the house was nearly empty.

Every happy memory I had about the place seemed to have been blotted out by Dad’s becoming what I came to think of as ‘the Father-thing’, some alien creature who had assumed his appearance. Whenever I thought of the house I felt a cold hand clutching my insides.

One more room to empty and I’d never have to come back to the house again. I picked up the charity shop box and headed for the living room. A mouldy smell hung in the air and stains edged their way up the walls where the furniture had been. The front door, opening directly from the room onto the street, shuddered in the wind. The sky outside darkened and rain blobbed against the window. There was still work to do, on a shelf-full of books that the dealer had refused to take. A woman from the charity shop was coming to collect them. I looked at my watch–she was due in an hour. Better get a move on.

I saw a blue book on the shelf. The label on the front read “The Quantum Multiverse–could it resolve the Grandfather Paradox?” The Paradox was a time travel thing–if you went back and killed your own grandfather before you were born, how could you have been born to go back and murder him? It was my final dissertation for my degree, and I’d been much taken with the idea of an infinite number of possible universes, like bubbles, all coexisting but never interacting. Dad took one look at the dissertation, said “too many hard sums for me”, gave me a kiss and put the book on the shelf. It had probably been there ever since.

I pulled out a Bible bound in black leather, gold leaf letters on the spine. Inside, the inscription “Maurice Farthing, November, 1933”. He’d have been thirteen, I remember him telling me that was the age he was when he first became interested in Egyptology. I took it into the kitchen and put it on the table, on top of the pile of books to take home.

Back in the living room, in the gap behind where the book had been, stood another one, a battered hard-back with a dull red cover. The British Way and Purpose, consolidated edition, prepared by the Directorate of Army Education. The book fell open between chapters called ‘Working for a Living’ and ‘What we Produce’, held slightly apart by an envelope containing three dried leaves, burnt at the edges. Another toaster job.

A few pages further on, after ‘What We Do with the Products’, I found two letters. One was from the Royal Botanic Garden, at Kew.

We have been unable to identify the leaf you submitted as there is nothing comparable among our herbarium specimens. However, we believe it to originate from a species of thorn bush.

The letter was dated October 2013, a month before the dementia caught hold of Dad. It must have been the last thing he worked on.

The second letter, sent a week later, was from the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the University.

The papyrus, the ink used in the writing on it and the plant sample you submitted are between 3500 and 4000 years old.

I picked up a pristine copy of A Brief History of Time, flicked through it. Some of the pages hadn’t been cut  ad anyone actually read the book? Behind it was another copy of The British Way and Purpose. Between ‘Better than the Rules’ and ‘Does It Matter What We Believe?’  was a letter from the Department of Semitic Studies at the University, dated November 2013:

“we concur with you that the text on the “papyrus” allegedly from Mount Horeb, of which you sent us a photocopy, is Hebrew, written in a form of early Semitic script. You say that you found it in 1942 but the fact that you have not consulted us until now leads us to assume this is some kind of hoax.

In the margin, in Dad’s writing Yes – I took a break after El Alamein. And No carbon dating till now, you buffoon! I read on.

However, here is the translation of what we could read: “My brother Aaron, these leaves are from the bush I told you about…on fire and yet not consumed… I will be who I will be…my name forever, the name you shall call me… I am not a man of words—not yesterday, not the day before…speak to the people for me, speak to Pharaoh Thutmose…meet me in the desert.” We cannot discern a signature on the document but would be happy to examine the original.

I felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room and the floor seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. Where was the original papyrus? I struggled to catch my breath. I clawed at the books still on the shelf, dragged them onto the floor, but there were no more copies of The British Way and Purpose. Pages clattered as I hurled the remaining books across the room, but nothing fell out as they hit the wall.

I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the toaster, turned it upside down and shook it till the works rattled. Nothing. Had there been a dull red book among the ones the dealer took? Why hadn’t I made a note of his phone number? Where had I found it—Google? I wrenched my phone out of my pocket. No signal. I flung the window open. “Archie! Quick! Have you got a local paper?”

Out in the garden, he didn’t seem to have heard me. He knelt on the lawn pulling something red out of the ground where the apple tree had been. His stood up. “Your Dad. Daft old bugger.” He held out a clear plastic bag. Inside was a book with a dark red cover.

“Give that to me!” I ran towards him, my feet slipping and sliding on the wet grass. I snatched the bag and ran back into the house. Archie followed me.

My heartbeat pounded in my ears. The bag slipped out of my shaking hands onto the table. I panted as I tried to tear it open.

“Here, let me do it.” Archie took a lock-knife out of his pocket and pulled out the blade. I gasped. “Don’t look so worried,” he said. “I’ll be careful.” He slit the bag, took the book out and put it on the table next to the empty lemonade bottle. I grabbed the book and it fell open. The pages had been cut away, leaving a space containing a cylindrical grey pottery jar about three inches high. The lid of the jar was shaped like the head of a pointy-eared jackal, with long striped hair. I pulled the jar out of the book.

Archie peered over my shoulder. “Looks old. Valuable, is it?”

I took the jackal head lid off and upended the jar over the table. A roll of paper dropped out. It was brown with tattered edges. Through the surface I saw the outline of unfamiliar texts. Not paper. Papyrus.

My mouth dried. “More than you know.” I touched the papyrus with the tip of my index finger. The air glowed blue above it I felt a buzzing inside my head and an image of sand, and the occasional scrubby bush, flashed across my mind.

Archie leaned in front of me. “It’s clever, lighting up like that. Let me look at it properly.”

“No!” I reached out to grab the papyrus, knocking the pile of books to the floor. I looked out of the window. “I think it’s stopped raining. I don’t want to keep you. Kevin’ll be waiting. Time to go!” A phoney laugh stuck in my throat.

“OK, calm down. I’ll say goodbye.” He reached out to shake my hand. I felt bad. Archie had helped me find something wonderful, even if he didn’t know it. I’d send him some money, anonymously. Once I’d sold the scroll.

I put my arms round Archie and hugged him. He reddened. “Give over. I’m only going to rake up Kev’s leaves. Not create the hanging gardens of Babylon.”

I released him. “That was for me. For all your help. You must let me give you something,” I said. “Take anything you like the look of. Before you go.”

Archie tugged at one ear. “Sure?”

I nodded. He looked round, frowning. Archie picked up the Bible and leafed through it. “I wouldn’t mind taking this notebook, for my little grandson. Loves to draw, he does.”

“That belonged to Dad. I don’t think anyone should be scribbling on it.”

“Make your mind up. But I’m sure your Dad wouldn’t have minded a little lad having a bit of a draw. It’s not like it’s got writing or anything. Well, just a bit at the beginning and I’ll make sure he leaves that.” He shoved the bible towards me, flicking through blank page after blank page.

I took it. “Where’s the New Testament?”

Archie shrugged. “Where’s what?”

Genesis was there. Exodus stopped in the middle of a sentence about Moses tending sheep. After that, blank pages.

“But it was there. I saw it.” My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. “Where’s the rest of the Bible gone?

Archie raised his eyebrows. “Bible?”

“This.” I jabbed a fingertip at the cover. “Look. Read.” I turned the book so that the spine was uppermost. No gold text. Had I imagined it? Dementia wasn’t contagious – was it?

The chair squeaked as I flopped into it. I pushed my fingers through my hair.

Archie put his hands up. “OK, OK, keep your Dad’s book. Didn’t mean to upset you.” He looked away from me. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He shuffled out of the back door. I locked the door behind him. I took a deep breath and told myself to think rationally, to remember I was a scientist. The Bible must have been printed in some kind of disappearing ink. And as for Archie, he must be losing his memory. Poor man.

I went back into the front room. A beam like a full-on car headlight shone through the window. The charity shop woman must have come early. I looked out of the window into the empty street. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, as though someone was watching me. I locked the door.

I put the Bible back on the table. I had proof that what it said was true. Dad was right, it was priceless. “It’s not too late,” I said to an empty room. “I’m going to make you a household name, Dad.” I decided to be patriotic and offer it all to the British Museum first. The jar alone must be worth something. I picked it up and reached out towards the papyrus again.

Pins and needles shot through my palm. My hand opened and I dropped the jar onto the table. After a second pause it rolled, apparently under its own power, onto the floor where it smashed on the stone tiles. The air seemed thick and I felt like I was moving under water. I heard a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth.

The shadow of a man appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, but not on the wall. It stood in the middle of the room, on the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle of the shadow. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into the figure of a dark-skinned man. He stepped out of the space and into the room, flecks of light crackling around his shaven head.

He wore a white tunic, with fringes hanging down by his legs. He had bright green shadow on his eyelids, and a black line circled each eye. He held out his hand.

“Give me the scroll of the slave Moshe.”

“Can’t…move.”

He clapped his hands and I felt as though weights had fallen away from me. “You took the scroll from the jar. Give it to me.”

“Who the hell are you? Get out of my house.” He stood motionless. To get to the landline phone in the hall, I would have to get past him. He reached for the papyrus.

My breath rasped as I grabbed the empty lemonade bottle. I smashed it against the stone tiles of the floor. “You heard me. Get out.” I grasped the neck of the bottle and held the broken end outwards.

The man held his palm up and took a pace back. “I am Khusebek, magician of Pharaoh Thutmose. I serve Sekhmet, goddess of plague. You cannot harm me.”

“Don’t be too sure.” My mouth dried and I felt sick.

“The scroll is mine.”

“I’m not going to give it to you. It belongs to me. Me and my Dad.” I took a step towards him, jerking the broken end of the bottle forwards.

The man said a word I did not understand, which would probably take pictograms of reeds and eyes to write down. An invisible force grasped my hand, twisting it round. The bottle smashed on the floor, with a crash that seemed to go on and on. I rubbed my wrist.

His eyes narrowed. “You will not stop me. My magic is the breaker of bones. The tearer of flesh. Next time I will rip your arms from your body. The scroll is cursed. If you do not give it to me, the curse will fall on you.”

I backed away, my fists clenched, until I was pressed against the wall. “Go on, take it.”

He reached out. With a crack that made my ears ring, a flash of light burst out of the scroll. He jerked his hand back.

“The power is too great. I may hold it but I may not pick it up. You must give it to me.”

I dropped the scroll onto the table. “Then, you’ve got a problem, because I’m not going to. I don’t believe all that nonsense about curses. So just sod off.”

“I have waited many lifetimes. Dead. Asleep. Waiting for the scroll to be released from its captivity. The scroll is the destroyer of brains. It is a tool of great energy, it makes two times touch. Things are shaken loose in their time. You released the power when you took the scroll from its jar. It called to me through time, dragging me through an opened door between my world and yours.”

His gaze followed mine, to the shattered remains of the jar on the floor. “Why do you think your father, the tomb robber, kept it in the jar? Now the scroll cannot be put back, its power cannot be contained.”

“What are you on about, power?” I remembered my day job again. Caesium could give off blue light like the scroll had, if it got damp. “You mean radioactivity? Calm down. If that jar kept it in check I’m sure it’s nothing a few inches of lead can’t block.” The museum would be able to shield it. Wouldn’t they?

He moved towards me. I dashed to the other side of the kitchen, my feet crunching on the broken glass and pottery. The table stood between us. He leaned towards me.

“My master Pharaoh Thutmose found the scroll abandoned in the wilderness, after the slaves escaped. He kept it, hoping to use it to get them back. He never did. When he died, he took the scroll into his tomb. It watched over him for thousands of years. And your father crept through the doorway stole it.”

“Liar. Dad was no grave robber. He must have dug it out of the ground.”

He raised a palm. “It was in the tomb. And it was never in the tomb. The doorway opened and let your father steal the scroll before we could put it in. I have followed your father through the doorway.”

“So Dad got hold of the scroll before you had the chance to stash it. Although it was already stashed. And then, it appears here? I don’t think so.” My head ached, and I remembered the idea of the bubble universes. Perhaps, in one bubble, Pharaoh kept the scroll. In another, Dad got it. Somehow, the power of the scroll had made my bubble collide with the other two. “I don’t care how you got here, or why,” I said. “Just trot off back through that doorway. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got a press release to write.”

“You do not understand. The curse has already come on you and your people.”

“I don’t believe you. Stay here if you want, but I’m off.”  I slipped the scroll into my pocket and turned away.

“Then fear—” he cleared his throat “the power of Sekhmet. You will lose your mind. Your fellow-men have already done so. Your father looked upon the scroll too many times and was no longer your father.”

I had looked at it. The image was in my head, when I shut my eyes.

“Hear me,” he said. “The scroll released is more powerful than the gods. Your father’s wits were smashed. The spreading destruction that cannot be undone, the eater of minds, a swarm of locusts devouring all in its path. It attacks even the minds of those who have not seen the scroll. There is no healing. No escape, now. Without the jar.”

I looked at the shards on the floor. “I’ll burn it. And that’ll stop up your precious doorway as well.”

“Your father tried fire. And failed. As you will.”

I remembered the burning kitchen, the garden bonfires. Dad, Kevin, others…brains turned to mush. Archie, forgetting the Bible. Next me. Dementia, spreading.

“The eater of minds has taken root in me,” he said. “Only if I return to my own time, with or without the scroll, will it be checked. But I cannot travel without the scroll.”

I pulled it from my pocket. “OK, you have the vile thing. Then just get lost.” He put out his hand, palm upwards. I reached out.

The air shimmered silver. I caught movement in the corner of my eye and flicked my head towards it. I heard a noise inside my head, whining at a higher and higher pitch until I could only feel it. Then nothing. Another shadow appeared. A man stepped out, dressed in what looked like a woollen coat, over a knee length shirt. He had a close-clipped beard and on his head he wore a piece of cloth that draped round his shoulders, held in place with a cord round the forehead.

He thrust his out his hand and snatched my wrist. With his other hand, he grabbed my free arm and pushed it round my back. I let the scroll fall and kicked it across the floor.

He spoke from behind me. “I—I am Moshe. Do not give the scroll to Khusebek. If you do, we will b-be as nothing and s-s-so will you. Pick it up. Give it to me.”

Moshe. Moses, who stammered. His brother as spokesperson.

“Do not listen to this slave,” Khusebek hissed.

I turned my wrist, kicking out at Moshe.

“Listen, or I b-break your bones,” he said. “I beg of y-you. I am slow of tongue, b-but I have had to come alone, this time. This doorway is, is unsafe. It destroys. When two have entered it, in all but a single time, only one has come out.”

I bent forward as pain shot up to my shoulder. My eyes watered. “I’m giving it to Khusebek. For all our sakes.”

Moshe leaned forward, let go of my wrist and snatched the Bible from the table. “In his world, Pharaoh found the scroll before my brother could read it. And now his world, mine and yours are bound up with each other. If you give it to him it will be as though we Israelites had never lived. We, and our children, and our children’s children.”

Holding the front cover of the Bible, he shook it in front of me. The empty pages clattered in my face. Moshe dropped my arm.

“Now, will you listen?”

I nodded.

“Our worlds are woven because your father took the scroll from Pharaoh’s and from mine and brought it to yours. We never left Egypt. We withered and died out. God has forsaken your world. That is why the pages are blank.”

“Give the scroll to me,” Khusebek snarled.

Moshe reached out a hand to mine again, but I dodged and ran to where the scroll lay.

“Now listen,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I have to stop the dementia.”

“You would help a few people, and condemn your whole world to eternal misery?”

I heard a voice outside in the street, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio. “What could be worse than your brain turning to mush?” I said. I turned to Khusebek. “Just take this and get lost.” My hands shook.

The light shone through the window again. I ran to shut the curtains. A spotlight beam swept along the front of the house, coming from a streetlamp right outside the front door. Mounted on the lamp post was some sort of camera, swivelling to follow the path of the beam. I heard another crackle, from a loudspeaker mounted at the top of the post.

The voice spoke again. “Worship the one true goddess, people of the faith!”

I shut the curtains.

“Woman of dwelling 38! We know you are there. You were warned before.”

There had never been a streetlamp outside the front door, there can’t have been. How would we have got the car off the drive?  Dementia must have caught hold, in me. I felt my heart race.

“This is your final warning. Attend worship or pay the ultimate penalty.”

Something drew me, staggering, to the window. Outside, the colour faded from the world, draining away to a view like a sepia photograph. A van drew up outside the house. On its side, letters read “Honouring the One True Goddess is our Way and Purpose”.

Without sound this time, another shadow appeared, glowing blue round the edges. I smelled something aromatic and smoky, like tobacco. Moses and Khusebek froze. From the shadow a man stepped, aged in his twenties. He wore an open-necked khaki battledress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, baggy shorts, knee-length khaki socks and scuffed black boots. On his head was a black beret. Below that, a face I had seen in seventy year old photographs. Dad. With his whole life ahead of him.

“Hello, Kat,” he said. “I thought I’d better join the party, now that lot are at the door.”

I reached out and touched his face. The skin was warm and rough. “Dad? What’s going on?

He stepped towards me, leaving sandy footprints on the floor. “Is that it? No hug, for your Dad?”

I squeezed him tightly. He kissed the top of my head and unwrapped my arms.

“Let a chap breathe. Curious, I’d have expected to see myself here.”

“You won’t. It’s 2015 and you’re…you live somewhere else, now.”

“You mean I’m dead. Well, I had a good run for my money. I must have been…ninety three?”

I felt a lump rise in my throat. “I’ve missed you. Every day. But look, this scroll you found. I’m giving it back to the Egyptians. Sorry.”

“No. Give it to the Israelites, before it’s too late.”

“But, the dementia—”

Dad put his palm up, his mouth set in a line. “Shut up. The scroll, created on holy ground, became charged with great power. It can make a stammering man speak clearly. It can warp the fabric of existence so that space-time bends back on itself. But there’s just about enough time to undo it all. If you give it to Moshe.”

I folded my arms. “No, Dad. I’ve made my mind up. You haven’t seen dementia take away someone you loved. You haven’t mourned someone who was still alive.”

Dad reached out and squeezed my hand. “A cure might be found. But there’s no cure for world-wide tyranny. You have to do what I say.”

I shrugged. “Why? Things seem OK to me.”

“Listen. You’ve felt as though you’re being watched, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “Ever since I opened the Bible .”

“That’s because you are under surveillance. Every one of us is, now. Because Aaron never saw the scroll, there’s no Judaism. So there was never a Jesus. And there was no Islam. The other religions of the world never flourished—”

“—I don’t care. Religion is behind all the problems of this life. We’re better off as atheists—”

He grabbed both my hands. “Atheism? Forbidden. Because there was nothing to believe in, something cold and harsh arose to fill gaps. An evil that murders non-worshippers.”

I heard the letterbox rattle.

“They’re coming,” Dad said. “Give the scroll to Moshe.”

“But Khusebek will be left behind. And his presence is giving everyone dementia. It killed you. It’s taking everyone in the street, in the town, in the country. It will take the world. One by one.”

I heard footsteps outside the front door. The letterbox rattled. The loudspeaker bellowed. “You have twenty seconds to pray in repentance before we enact the ultimate penalty. May the one true goddess have mercy upon your soul.”

Dad bent down and grabbed the scroll. “I started this mess. I have to undo it. The line of time has been spliced and recombined. All realities are superimposed. You could call it The Father Paradox. The only way to sort it out is to cut it off and start again, to overwrite what might happen. I have to take it back myself, so that I never found it. This is the only chance we have.”

“Take me with you.”

Moses opened his mouth. “Fool! Did you not hear me? This doorway is unsafe. Two in, one out.”

“You said that once it worked for two people. I’ll take that chance.”

Dad’s hand trembled as he took mine. “If you come with me, who knows which of us will survive? And whether the scroll will come through intact?”

Tears ran down my cheeks. “Do you think I care what happens to the bloody scroll? I can’t let you go again. I won’t.”
Judith Field

Dad dropped my hand, and wagged a finger at me. “Language. I might be much younger than you are, but I’m still your father. Sorry, I’ve got to do it on my own.”

“Then come back again afterwards. Come back to me.”

He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to leave it there. And time travel’s not possible without it. Goodbye, Kat. Chin up. Who knows what life will be when the scroll was never in it? We’ll probably still be together, and you won’t be older than me like now.”

“Or you might have gone under a bus. Or broken your neck falling off some ancient temple.” And I might still be alone. “Take me.”

Dad shook his head. He put the scroll into his pocket. All motion stopped and he looked like a photograph. He dimmed to black and white. I saw the room behind him.

“No!” I grabbed his arm as he faded.

* * *

Archie unlocked the front door and stepped into the living room. A boy aged about ten looked up from the book open in front of him on a table, and smiled.

“Hiya, Grandad!”

“Hiya, Joe. Is your dad in? I want to chat to him about the New Year holiday.”

Joe shook his head. “He went to see the Rabbi.”

“OK. Getting on with your homework? Good lad.”

“Yeah. Nearly done. I had lots.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “maths—those flippin’ decimal sums—”

“—give you a hand, if you like.”

“No, you don’t do it the same way as Miss Bradshaw and I’ve got to show my working out. Anyway, I’ve finished it. Now I’m on history. I’m doing a project about the Egyptians.”

“You know they took your guts out when you died?”

Joe mimed putting his finger down his throat. “Yeah. They used to stick them in jars.” He picked up a postcard. “I got this from the museum. I copied the picture into my book.”

“Give us a look.” Archie took the card. It showed a stone relief of a man and a woman facing each other, smiling and holding hands. Each had placed their free hand on the top of a jar with the head of a jackal for a lid, standing on a table in front of them. Hieroglyphics ran across the bottom of the carving. “Perhaps that’s one of them gut jars, with the dog’s head on.” He turned the card over. “Yes, I was right. It says “From the New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties, 1550-1069 BC). Shows Canopic jar for preservation of body parts, with head of Duamutef. Inscription (possibly referring to the goddess Bast) reads Dad and Cat were here.”  His eyes narrowed. “If you’ve finished with this, can I have it?”

“If you want.”

Archie slipped the card into his pocket. “OK, I’ll be off now. Tell your dad I’ll pop in later.” He walked to the front door and reached out to the handle. He stopped. “Hang on.” His hand dropped and he walked back across the room.

“Why are you putting the card in there?” Joe said.

Archie put the book with the dull red cover back on the shelf. “Dunno, lad.” He frowned, and stroked his chin. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Judith Field

 

Torque’s Jump

airshipby Kate Runnels

Torque gazed down at the clouds scudding past below in a breeze she couldn’t feel, as she idly swung her feet. Sitting at the very edge of the rusting metal support beam she could imagine she was somewhere else. The beam was one of many that needed repair all over the city, but weren’t absolutely necessary. But it was one that helped hold up the roof of her father’s Mechanic shop.

The constant thrum of the engines that held the air city of New Perth in the sky droned on in the background as she fiddled with her mechanical right arm. The tiny gears and joints sometimes clogged with dust and she liked to keep it clean and running smoothly. The small screwdriver tightened one last screw and she slipped it into a side pocket as she flexed her right arm, watching the interplay of gears, pulleys and fluid.

Her chores finished and no airship in for repairs, she stayed out of sight of the bastard of a new man her mother called husband, Malvin. A drunk who relied on Torques skill so he could stay drunk, with the pretense of running the shop. Her father’s shop. Her shop.

The same accident that had taken her arm had taken her father. Everyone in New Perth had lost someone they cared about that day.

The steel vibrated under her and she turned to see Sark, Malvin’s oldest son. Two years older than she and already apprenticed to their neighbor, a smith who made most of the parts they used to keep the airships running. Except those tiny gears she made herself.

Sark didn’t need to flex to show his muscles. They were there from years of working in the smithy. He grinned at her. “Hey, if it isn’t Torque the dork. What are you doing out here? I’m sure father will love to know you’re shirking your work.”

“If Malvin’s not too sloshed he might remember, pea brain.”

“What was that?” he demanded, stepping one foot out onto the beam. He kept hold of the hull wall, as there wasn’t much below but other jutting beams, the starboard engine housing, and the clouds.

She had been sitting, but a change of pitch in the background rumble caused her to stand, easily balanced on the 10 inch wide beam.

“What—”

She held up a hand and Sark fell silent. She cocked her head slightly to one side to bring one ear upward. He opened his mouth again and then stopped, he’d heard it too. Another airship! No! There was more than one.

Torque glanced up in time to see a sleek fast moving airship streak from above the bulk of the city and then it was past and diving down into the clouds not far below.

Seconds later, it was followed by a ship that made the first look like a rusted old tug boat. The sleekness and pristine condition hid its size, until it kept coming and coming on. Only then as it fully emerged did the colors and the sigil penetrate into her astonished mind.

“A Royalty Air Cruiser,” she breathed. She’d only seen one once before in that blue and red, and that was a medical boat after the Blast. It continued its flight, following the airship down into the clouds, but before it disappeared she saw the bow fire a barrage, the report cruising over her moments later.

Then it too vanished into the clouds. What was it doing here?

Lost in wonder, she’d forgotten about Sark. He’d gained his nerve at her inattention. The beam shook slightly and she glanced back to see him in time as he pulled back a meaty fist for a punch, and the wicked gleam in his eyes.

She stepped back off the end of the beam to avoid the strike, which would more than likely have sent her over anyway. Torque dropped, her right arm catching the lip of the beam and she smiled as Sark, off balance, windmilled to keep himself from falling. Torque only used the beam to slow herself and change trajectory. Swinging in toward the hull, she released her grip.

Torque landed lightly on another beam that was part of the floor below their own. She gripped a rusting hole in the hull, as the floor she stood on was barely wide enough for her feet. She didn’t stay there long though, but ran the length of it and when it abruptly ended, Torque trusted her knowledge and leaped off into the gaping hole that was a legacy of the Blast. She knew she disappeared from Sark’s astonished sight, as barely any light penetrated the shattered part of engineering. In another moment she landed, rolled to shed momentum and stopped with a bang as her right arm hit the inner wall. This was a section of engineering that remained after the Blast.

Hearing the noise, a door opened off to her left, spilling out warm welcoming light into the dark, and a grizzled head peaked out the door. Old Grif. He smiled when his eyes lit on her and she scrambled to her feet. It was a gap-toothed smile but genuine for all that, and not evil like Sark, or his dad, Malvin’s.

“Torque, you little rascal, are you running from Malvin again? Or is it your step-brother this time?”

She nodded indicating his guess was correct. “Yeah, It was Sark.” She waved that away, eyes alight from the memory. “More than that, Grif, did you see it? It flew by moments ago.”

“See what, young lady?” he motioned her into the Engineering Control Room and dogged the hatch shut behind her. “I’ve been working on the number two turbine again.”

“A pirate ship, with a Royalty Cruiser on its back end. They flew right over the top of the city, close too, and then they both dove into the cloud cover.”

“A pirate ship? There may be pirates, Torque, but far from here.”

“But, it was being chased by a Royalty Cruiser!” she insisted.

Grif scratched at his scraggly spiky grey hair. “Haven’t seen one of them since right after the accident.” He eyed her, asking, “Are you sure?”

“Of course I am, Grif. It was all fresh bright colors of blue and red, with the Royalty symbol painted on the hull. And the metal shone, so bright, so silver and new—not like this.” She knocked her right cybernetic hand against the inside wall, and got a dull thud in response. “God, I’d love to work on one of those.”

Sighing, she sat down in the chair across the table from Grif.

“Now, Torque, you know how difficult it is to get to the academy. No one from New Perth City has ever gone. It mainly goes to the Islanders, tramping about on dirt—”

“Buddists—” she almost cursed it.

“Now don’t, girl. They were there before, their ancestors travelled and eked out a living in the Himalayas, in the time before the great flood. It’s only happenstance, and I’d rather be living here, in this part of the world than in the Rocks.”

“I know all that, Grif.” She sighed again. “I just feel as if I’m going to be stuck here forever.”

“Stick it out. Your garage is needed for our mail carriers and the other airships in this area. And two more years, you can become my apprentice, move down here and away from some of your troubles.”

“If I do that Grif, what will then happen to my father’s garage? It’s all I have left of him. Mom’s not the same since his death. She only married Malvin out of convenience, not love. We needed the money to buy food and parts for the shop.”

Torque found herself pacing and made herself stop. Her right arm wasn’t the only thing that had been replaced. Everyone, and the city, owed so much debt to the Royalty. It would be at least five more years of work in the shop before her mom, Torque, and her hated step-father were out of debt. Five years. She’d be nineteen then and it seemed so far away, intangible as the clouds New Perth drifted through at times.

“I can’t leave mom in debt.”

“She’s not your responsibility, Torque.” His voice softened. “Think on it. You have two years to decide, my young lady. I’ll always be here for you, slaving away in the bowels of the ship.”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “I do half your work already, you old scoundrel. You’d sleep the days away if I came to work for you.”

He laughed with her. “Let’s head up to the Commons for a bite to eat,” and added when he saw her face close up, “my treat.”

“You’re on, Grif, but not the Commons, the open air market. They have better food.”

“And a view of the docks, if that Royalty Cruiser is indeed around. You can’t fool me,” he said, guiding her toward the lift. “You want to see that ship.”

They exited the lift to the open air market, with the docks to the right, a wall to the front and the city offices behind them. Located at the top of the city, it boasted some of the few trees, and they were used to screen the market from winds. The market was packed with stalls and shops, travelling merchants and local food vendors. The fishermen were in, having descended earlier in the day to haul in their nets. A crowd had gathered near their docks to gawk and stare at a giant fifteen foot shark which they’d hauled in. Shark meat was good, but expensive. Not as rare or precious as beef, but still good.

“The gypsy section has some goat meat I can smell. Maybe some chicken, but eggs are too precious to waste a chicken for a meal,” Torque said.

“Fish and chips?” Grif asked.

“Fish and chips, it is then.”

After getting their food, they wandered near the docks and found a spot near the edge to sit down. No Royalty Cruiser in sight. But there was a large merchant vessel preparing for departure. Torque never tired of the sight of the airships coming and going. Even the little dories the fishermen used to fish with. They had their own elegance in their simplicity.

The sun slowly sank, below the clouds, leaving them bathed in a brilliant red-gold, and the city darkened in the twilight. It took a long time for the sun to completely disappear with the city high up in the sky. It would lower come the morning allowing easier access to the sea for the fishermen in their little dories, but for now it soared high up with the clouds.

“All right, young lady, you should head home now. I’m up early to check the Port side engine coupling with a comptech and a Tesla man. It’s dropped efficiency and only they can go into places I can’t. Trade secrets and all.” Grif shrugged. “I just keep the old city running.”

Torque gave him a hug. “Thank you Grif.”

They parted and she threaded her way through the thinning crowd back to her father’s mechanic shop near the docks but below the open air market. Her home, the only home she’d ever known was behind the shop itself. It just didn’t feel like home anymore.

As the door closed behind her, she saw her step-father glaring at her. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “I hear from Sark you were off sightseeing instead of working.”

She glared right back at the burly drunk of her step-father. “All the work was done, Malvin. You would know that if you ever stepped one foot into the garage.”

“Now listen, girly,” he stepped forward. She clenched her teeth and readied herself.

“Stop Malvin.” Her mother clutched at his raised arm.

“No.” He spun on her. “Your girl needs to learn manners and show some respect.”

Torque raised her right arm, the metal shining in the lamp light. Malvin was one of the few who hadn’t needed any repairing or fixing. He’d come to the city after the accident. His black eyes narrowed at the sight of her right fist.

“Now how would Sark even know if I wasn’t working, Malvin, unless he was shirking his work at the smithy? And I know they had jobs ‘cause we still haven’t got those gears to fit into the number two tug boat for the city!”

He paused and his anger stilled; he wouldn’t attack now.

“Get to your room, girly. I expect to see you in the shop in the morning.”

Not pushing the issue, Torque hugged her mom goodnight and went to her room. She wouldn’t see Malvin in the morning, he would already have started on the alcohol. She closed her bedroom door and flopped onto her bed, but sleep was a long time coming for her that night. She kept thinking about pirate ships, far off lands and the bright shiny Royalty Air Cruiser.

* * *

Up early, Torque snuck out of the house listening to Malvin’s drunken snores. Quickly grabbing bread and goat cheese, she opened the door into the garage and breathed in the familiar comforting smells. This was her home, not where she’d just left.

Around midmorning a pounding sounded from the main shop hatch. She was under a partial support frame that needed rewiring, new gears and all. From the house Malvin yelled, “Curse you girly, get that!” as the pounding started anew.

Rolling out from under the frame, she got to the door as Malvin roared again, “Girly!”

Throwing the hatch lock, she pulled it open and her eyes widened in shock at the sight presented to her. A royalty officer in his uniform of bright blue greeted with red trim, flanked by two guards, one in black and the other wore a lighter blue of a different cut.

“Yes sir?” she asked.

“Is your master about?” the officer asked coolly but politely.

“I’m not an apprentice yet sir, but this was my father’s shop before his death. What can I help you with?”

The officer glanced behind him to the other in the lighter blue uniform. And he asked, “Do you know what a Maple leaf gear is?’

“Of course, but do you want a size 17 engine leaf gear or the 28 for small parts? There’s also the oak leaf off shoot style, that’s transferable but might not be compatible or as strong.” Torque shrugged, “It just depends on what you are using it for.”

The door from the house into the garage slammed behind her. She watched the officer converse quietly with the man who’d asked her the question.

“Well, girly, who was banging at the hatch?” he pulled the hatch from her and swung it all the way open so he could see. And stopped. “I–“ he stopped again.

The officer glanced at Malvin. “We require parts and labor to fix our cruiser as quickly as possible.”

Malvin finally shut his mouth and moved back, gesturing them in. “Of course, my lord. Whatever the Royalty needs.”

The officer stepped past looking away as if he’d caught a bad smell, but was too polite to comment. “As I said, we require parts and labor.”

“Do you have a list of what you need?” asked Torque. Malvin glared at her for speaking out of turn, and to the Royalty on top of it. The officer ignored Malvin and waved at the other in light blue who stepped forward. The black uniform stayed outside, and he was the only one armed, with sword and projectile guns, a pistol and a rifle. The light blue uniformed man produced a list. He had blue eyes and darker skin and a nice smile as he handed it over. He was not as scary as the guard in black. His eyebrows raised as she took the list with her cybernetic right arm. Torque noticed the officer noticed her arm too, by then though, she was engrossed in the list.

“We have a lot of this in the shop, but not the piston and cylinder 330 or the housing assembly for the gear thrusts, we’d have to order those made from the smithy.”

She glanced up. The officer thawed slightly then, “What is it?”

“Did you capture the other ship, sir, or sink it?”

“Torque!” her step-father spat her name thinking she had gone too far. The officer waved him off.

“How do you know there was another ship?”

“Both of you flew right over the top of the city, sir.”

He nodded. “We captured her. Why?”

“I only caught a glimpse as it passed, but hearing the engine go by it matched yours in pitch and tone. If it’s not too battle damaged, most of the parts you need can be transferred over. That would be quicker.”

“Good.” He nodded decisively again and turned to Malvin. “We will be hiring your apprentice away from you for the duration and we will buy any parts needed as can’t be found in the other ship.”

The blue eyed man motioned her over. “The XO, Major Ward, will settle on a price for your services. We need to get to work.”

“We?”

“Engineer Second Class Kidd. Call me Kaz.” When she looked at him weird he elaborated. “It’s short for Kazuto. Kaz is easier.”

“Second Class? Did you lose your Chief?”

His lips pursed together into a thin line. “Never mind. I’m sorry. It must have been a fierce battle with all the parts you need. If you need more help, the City Engineer, Grif, is quite capable.”

Kaz nodded. “He’s the one who sent us here.”

Torque smiled. “I’ll just get what we’ll need ready here. If you have an airlift it will go a lot faster.”

Now it was Kaz who smiled.

Torque arrived at the docks with her parts and stopped to stare at the cruiser. “Torque, stop gawking and let’s get started!” yelled Grif. She ran over to where he stood next to the port side hatch and gangplank attached to the docks.

“All right.” She returned his smile. “This is going to be fun!”

“We need the coupler that attaches here!” she yelled up from below the decking in the motor that helped power the lighting systems.

Her head poked out of the hole and soon she snaked the rest of her body all the way out. “We can’t continue without it.” She shook her head at Kaz.

Grif nodded when the royalty engineering crew looked over at the older engineer, shrugged and said, “She’s right.”

“All right, I’ll send Won over to get it.”

“No, I’ll go.” Torque jumped to her feet. “I know exactly where it is and I have the tools to get it out. And there are some things I want to check out that could be converted over, like their boost systems. It ties in with the Tesla components, I’m sure of it. I want to see how it’s installed.”

She was off before they could say anything otherwise. Her laugh filled the stoic corridors of the cruiser and she ran with abandon down the docking ramp as crew members and officers dodged out of her way. Some shaking their heads, others smiling at her youth and enthusiasm.

Torque crossed the docks and waved at several people who she knew, but hustled on. She paused briefly to look back at the Royalty Cruiser Osprey before she entered the pirate ship. They were so different once she entered the hatch. The cruiser was spick and span and bright and fresh steel and new parts, where the pirate ship was rusting in places and grimy with age. For all that, it had the same ordered quality, tools put away, everything in the correct place, and the engine room–it matched the larger cruiser in power and had the boost converter, weapons implements and was not lacking where power and force were concerned. The engine was almost as new as the cruisers and nearly as bright and clean with new steel. It was amazing.

Then she noticed the dories heading out in the morning light to do the fishing for the city for that day. The city had lowered during the night to make it easier for the fishers, and around midday when they came back, the city would rise again to stay out of the storms and the winds lower down.

Torque hadn’t realized the night had passed, so deep into her work she and Grif had been. Watching the last of the skiff’s gently float down to the ocean, she then turned into the pirate ship’s hatch to search for the parts she needed.

Her right arm, deep into the bowels of the engine, gripped what she needed; a small pipe with the correct valve fitting, size and angle. She just couldn’t get it free and out. Torque’s nose was pressed up against a gear and all she smelled was oil, metal as she breathed, and struggled to get the part out.

Then everything shifted.

The part came loose, but so did the one above and it clanked down on her arm. “Uh oh.” Carefully twisting first one way, she kept hold of her pipe, and then twisted the other as she struggled to free herself now. Forehead now pressed to the gear, she tried not to panic, the upper part shifted and then she was free and she flopped onto her back.

Torque lay on the deck a minute, staring up at the ceiling, at the different kind of lights the pirates had adapted onto their ship and the loose wiring connecting them. Most people didn’t look up, so it made sense not to have those covered, she thought, and probably made for easier access to certain parts of the ship. It was easier to think about that than how close to a huge mistake she’d almost made, and the small one that had occurred. After the minute to calm herself, she finally sat up and glanced along her right arm, with the needed pipe still clutched in her arm.

“Oh, crap.” Opening her hand carefully, slowly, the fingers released their hold of the pipe. She let it fall to the deck not caring if it rolled out of sight. She quickly grabbed with her left hand for her ever present tool. One of the tiny gears, about the size of her pinky nail, that helped work the intricate movements of her fingers, was cracked.

Unscrewing, and then lifting off the outer layer of metal, she could now see the entire gear, and how the teeth no longer lined up with the next and the crack ran down two thirds of it. It wouldn’t stood up to heavy or prolonged use. It might not even continue to work for the next several minutes.

Torque stood and glanced around the engine room. “Where am I going to find a gear piece that tiny and delicate here?”

There were the huge gears and hammers, wrenches and pipes. The one she scooped up now, was among the smallest aboard an airship. The pistons blocked her view forward, and the exhaust toward the aft. Then it came to her.

She left the engine room looking for the crew quarters.

Torque only glanced into some. They were not where she’d expect to find an extra piece to go to a cybernetic arm. And some reminded her too much of her step father. Drunk, with pictures of naked women about; other rooms were clean, but didn’t hold much of value.

Then she stepped into the Captain’s cabin. Larger than all the others and just off the bridge. She’d try the bridge next. The walked up to the desk, her eyes scanning for even something the right size. Pulling out drawers, she almost missed it, as it was lodged up against the side wall of one.

It was the correct size, but there were small holes throughout the gear even onto some of the teeth. Staring at it, she wondered if it would hold up, but she didn’t see any rust or corrosion. Deftly, she worked the broken piece out and the new one in place. Picking up the pipe that had caused all this trouble, Torque headed out of the pirate ship and back to the shiny Royalty Cruiser. The battle had caused a lot of damage, and even if Grif and the others worked around the clock, it would still take another two days.

She smiled. This had been the most fun for her, plus it kept her away from Sark and Malvin, her step father. She’d be sad when she finally fixed the ship up and it left.

“There you are Torque,” said Grif as she walked back into the engine room. “What took you so long?”

“Had a problem with my arm that I had to fix. But I got the coupler and the small pipe for the–“

“Right.” He nodded, and back to work they went.

A day later saw her heading from the secondary power room toward the mess. She was in unfamiliar areas. She’d already worked through the midday meal and Torque needed something before heading back to the engine room.

A door opened, she guessed, hearing her approach. “Here now, what are you doing here?”

Torque paused. “Heading to the mess.” The man wasn’t in uniform, in fact he had a slash in his pants leg near the knee, and his hair was longer, not the neatly trimmed look that she seen on all the others. He looked…rugged, she thought.

“But what brings you here?” he asked looking around the ship.

“My friend and I are affecting repairs caused by the battle with the pirate ship.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You?”

She didn’t like his questioning tone, nor how he slouched against the hatchway frame, arms crossed over his chest. “Yes.”

He smiled, amused it seemed by her curt answer and his next words lost some of their arrogance. “What’s your name?”

“Torque.”

“What kind of name is Torque?” asked another, younger man she could barely glimpse inside the room. The man in the hatchway ignored him.

“I’m Makoto, Torque, it’s nice to meet you.” He was about to continue when a voice down the corridor interrupted.

“You there! Back inside!”

Makoto held up his hands in surrender, then backed slowly inside, all the while grinning as the hatch shut, giving her a wink before it closed completely. Kaz came quickly up to her. “What are you doing here Torque? You shouldn’t be here, and you shouldn’t be talking to them.”

“I got lost heading to the mess from the secondary power room. Who was that?” she asked.

“No one. I’ll guide you, but hold on one sec,” he went up to the ship’s intercom system. “Bridge, engineer Second Class Kidd. I’m in Corridor Bravo 8. There is no sign of Apprentice Trooper Xiu. Can you send security down? I”ll stay until they arrive.”

“Security Chief Masterson will be there shortly with a squad, Bridge out.”

He turned and faced Torque. “Go to the first intersection, turn right, go up the stairs, past two intersections and it’s the door on the left. I have to stay here, but I’ll see you back in engineering shortly.”

Torque nodded and left without asking any of the questions she wanted. There was something going on. Something about those people in the room and the missing Apprentice that had Second Engineer Kidd worried.

Grif was still in the mess finishing up his own midday meal. When she finished telling him what happened he glared at her and then leaned over the table to give her a gentle whack upside the head. “You dolt!”

“What?”

“Those were the prisoners from the private ship. I doubt they have a brig large enough to hold them all, so they converted quarters or storage rooms.”

“Oh.”

“You can be daft sometimes.” He grinned at her to take the sting out of his words. He really did care for her. “Well, eat up, Torque. Then we are back to work.” He ran a hand through his salt and pepper spiky hair.

Not long after, with grease up to their elbows, and fixing up one of the last steam pipes before reconnecting the valves to the power core, Sark came into engineering carrying a load of new gears and bolts from the smithy.

He dropped them on the deck at her feet. The clang reverberated down the corridors and along the connecting decking. “Nice, Klutz,” Torque said. “If anything has broken, any teeth on the gears, the Royalty Fleet won’t pay for a new one, you will. What were you thinking?”

“I’m thinking, that I’m working double duty at the smithy and for father, while you’re living it up on a Royalty Cruiser.”

She was shocked for only a moment and then thrust her hands in front of his face. “You think this is living it up? I’m doing my job, Sark, I haven’t slept but six hours in three days. So sorry, you and Malvin actually have to work for once. It’s not like I’m eating steak and sleeping on goose down bedding.” She bent over to pick up the bag with her right hand, lifting it as easily as he had. “Anyway, we’re almost done. Just need to install what you’ve brought, unless you broke them.”

She set the bag on the counter and looked at what Sark had brought. “You forgot the connecting pin.”

“I’m not going to get it.”

“Whatever Sark. You can’t stay aboard in any event.”

She walked out with him and passed empty corridors and then a bunch of sailors running inboard. Sark and Torque flattened themselves against the bulkhead as they passed. “What was that about?” Her step-brother asked.

Torque shook her head, wondering also.

She continued a little behind Sark at a slower pace. She saw the sailors grab him a second before they grabbed her, hands over her mouth and one of her arms twisted behind her back, just enough to hurt. Eyes wide, she watched at Sark struggled and they knocked him over the head, knocking him out. One of the sailors threw him over his shoulder and they were then hurried along the corridor.

Torque didn’t resist, but the pace was frantic and hurried. Then she caught sight of a face she’d seen earlier. The one she had spoken to in the corridor. These weren’t royalty sailors or soldiers, but the pirates. He’d said his name was Makoto.

The voices were hushed, but huddled in amongst them, she heard them clearly.

“There has to be a way off this ship.”

“The main hatch.”

“Too many witnesses and soldiers to go through,” said the one she’d spoken to. “We want minimal casualties.”

The other men grunted and then he turned to her. “Do you know a way off the ship that won’t be seen?”

Where was Grif? Where was anyone she knew? Her eyes slid around to the others. There was no blood on the cloths, but they all looked like hard men and women. Her eyes came back to the first man.

“Do you or don’t you know, Torque?”

He’d remembered her name. Torque nodded slowly.

“Then you and I will lead.” He showed her the knife in his hand before the hand released her mouth. She stayed quiet. “Good.” He took hold of her arm as the other released her. She took them through the first hatch, back toward engineering. They continued down, below the main engineering past the pistons and connectors, past the pipes and coolant valves, to where they had to duck and twist to get through. To a final hatch which she opened. It was the outside propulsion engines. The wind whipped her hair around as she stepped onto the gantry. She could see the lower levels of New Perth City past the back part of the ship. And connecting the two were the giant tethers holding the Royalty ship to the city.

The giant rope didn’t sway or swing in the wind, but they dipped low enough to be near the wrecked open part of the city where Torque knew. And knew no one else dared go.

“There!” She had to yell as the wind gathered her voice and tried to take it from listening ears.

“No way!” Yelled one of the pirates just inside the hatchway.

“We can’t lug this one over there!” Yelled another.

She faced the first man, who seemed to be their leader. “So leave him,” she said with a shrug. “Or drop him, maybe?”

He smiled, flashing white perfect teeth. “There’s plenty of rope. Tie him off, and yourselves as well. Don’t want a gust taking you to the great blue hundreds of feet below.”

Torque started to walk forward, but his iron grasp held her back. “You got guts, girl. But I don’t want to lose you.”

“Like you really care?”

He laughed and engaging laugh and she couldn’t help but smile.

She started forward again. “Wait for the rope!”

“I don’t need it!”

His grip loosened on her arm and she ran onto the five foot thick tether, easily adjusting to the constant wind. She raced along and as she neared the city the rope surged upward, but she knew parts of the broken city were near. She showed them where to go as she leaped off.

She didn’t have far to fall. Landing with a clang barely six feet down and four feet out, the decking was solid. The clang beside her startled her. She whirled and saw the pirate captain beside her.

“Damn, you got guts!”

She smiled. The rest of the crew, she noticed it wasn’t the entire crew, only about ten of them followed on the rope. “What about the rest of your crew?”

Makoto shrugged. “They are better off with the Royalty, even as prisoners.” One by one he helped them make it down off the tether and into the area where Torque had led them, until they faced the two of them.

“We need someplace to wait for awhile while they search the city.” He glanced around and the jagged holes, the broken deck, the empty levels. “This should do nicely. I doubt anyone comes down here.”

He grabbed her by the arm again. Not roughly and not showing the knife this time. “Lead on.”

There were cracked bulkheads, broken decking, but the hall she led them in was fairly solid. She took them lower, farther toward the blast sight, when he stopped them in a large open area, with light filtering down through cracks. Torque knew this place; the old community theater.

She sat in an old seat as they crew wandered around, some gathering items, some picking through junk, and one dropping the unconscious body of Sark at her feet. She didn’t care. She was warm, fairly safe. She doubted they were going to hurt her, and it had been a long time since she had slept. She closed her eyes.

She woke to crackling flames of a fire up on the old stage. Sark had awoke at some point as he was no longer near her feet, but bound and gagged near the fire as the pirates toyed with him. Pushing him down until he struggled back to his knees or feet as they laughed throughout.

Makoto, several inches taller than her with a slim but muscular build—she remembered his iron grip—sat down next to her. He nodded to Sark. “Will he continue to do that?”

“He’s stubborn. Won’t back down.”

“How do you know him?”

He mouth twisted. “He’s my step-brother.”

“Who you don’t like.”

She shrugged, wondering why she talked to him. “No. I don’t like him, or his dad.”

“He can never replace your dad. I know. When did you lose him?”

“The accident.”

“When this occurred?” He asked, pointing around the area.

“Yes.” Maybe she talked to him because it had been so long since she had talked to anyone but Grif. “You can’t stay here long, you know?”

“I know.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“Get my ship back.”

His voice went cold, hard as the steel in her arm.

“Uhmm.”

The firelight glinted off his eyes as he looked at her. “What is it?”

“We had to take some of the parts from your ship to fix the cruiser.” The bluntness surprised her. Why had she told him? But he hadn’t harmed anyone, besides Sark, and knocking him on the head hadn’t hurt him.

“Will you help us, then?”

“Why should I help pirates?”

“Is that what they told you?”

Laughter from the circle around the fire drew his eyes away from hers. She looked then as Sark lay on his back. “No,” he continued softly, “we are not pirates. We are trouble makers though. And we are fighters. Consider us more like privateers, or mercenaries.”

“Then who hired you?”

“That, Torque, you don’t need to know. Only that we represent those fighting the Royalty.”

He stood then and left her to her own thoughts. Who was fighting the Royalty?

* * *

She did help them. And snuck back into the ship the way they had escaped. She knew the parts they needed, but it took two days. And always glares from Sark toward his captors, but none at her. Maybe he thought she helped them because they threatened to hurt him. She let him continue to believe that. Bringing food and water for them as well.

But two days was a long time, and they had to move to stay ahead of the search parties.

“We have everything we need,” said one of the female pirates. “I know it’s late, but let’s get going?”

“I’m with Mel, the sooner we are out of here the better.”

Makoto stood with the others, while Torque stayed on the outside, but within hearing distance.

“It’s not like getting to the ship that’s the problem. We tether in like we did getting out,”
Said Mel.

He glanced around the assembled group. “If everyone is agreed?” They all nodded. “Then we’ll leave tonight.”

“What about her?” Mel asked.

“I’ll handle that.”

Within moments the group dispersed. They picked up Sark and slung him over the big ones shoulders again. They put out the fire, gathered what gear they had and followed Torque and Makoto.

They were near the anchor point to their ship when they heard it; sounds of encroaching boots, lots of boots. They had stumbled into an oncoming patrol. Torque hurried them on. And they could feel the night wind and hear the creaking of the tether to the city.

The big guy set Sark down, and in the second as everyone glanced away and looked toward the tether, he was up and running with Torque and several others chasing after him. He was yelling, as were the others.

“Help me. Help. They are over here. Hey!” Sark yelling from ahead with a good head start and opening up his lead.

“Get on the ship, now!” Makoto bellowed to his crew.

“Stop right there!” Mel shouted at Sark as she lost distance on him.

Torque stopped then, seeing the approaching lights and Sark continued to yell. “No more hiding now,” she murmured.

“Mel, get on the ship!” Makoto yelled.

The pirate spun and raced back to the others and the tether and the safety of her ship. Torque watched her go. The voice of Sark yelling had faded some, but the lights grew brighter. They would be here soon.

She glanced back at Makoto. He stared at her as Mel reached the tether and started her way across. He was the last, still looking at her.

She glanced the other way to the oncoming soldiers of the royalty and the lights brightening the way. Then back at Makoto standing the darkness, a figure silhouetted by the coming dawn light.

“Your choice. Come with us or stay with them?”

Torque took off running.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kate Runnels

Kate lives in a small town in southern Oregon. She loves competing and coaching in hardball roller hockey and roller derby. While her derby name is unimaginative, Runnels, her number is original and unique in the derby world at -1.