“Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do.”
—Italo Calvino, if on a winter’s night a traveler
She is led into the capsule: her new workspace, and inside is her old cherry wood desk, her bifocals, the day’s rations. Beyond the desk winks a concave window of soundproof glass, soon to overlook the above-ground city she has never seen. The station manager sees her looking at the window, says, “The capsule rotates slightly. Moves in an arc that imitates the sun. Soft propulsion. Part of the same AI that runs the censor. It’s all gentle motion; balloonwork.” He hovers his hand out in front of him to demonstrate and attempts to smile. “You rise in the morning, reach zenith at midday and creep back down toward evening to a station west of here at end of work day.” “And at night?” she asks. He says, “At night you’re free to go back to your new lodgings, though your processor and files remain here, along with all your work.” “What if I want to sleep here at night?” she asks. The station manager gives her a doubtful look: “We can put a bunk in here, but I assume you’ll want to stretch your legs. Those are third and fourth degree private spaces your new access card gets you in to. You can go almost anywhere in the Newdelphia Metropolis. Don’t you want to see something…?” He cuts himself short, and she thinks he had been about to say something other than where you came from. The sublevel slums. But the manager’s voice is kind, detached. She doesn’t answer either the question he spoke or the one he thought. She places a hand lightly on the surface of her beat up desk, pretending to check for dust, but it is a tactile memory of her past, and she must touch it to believe it exists. Her focus lands on the shelf beside the swivel chair and its contents, and her hand dips protectively back inside her sleeve again as though hiding a tremor.
On the shelf are books. Relics made of paper and glue. Old treasures from her coop down in Daglight. These are the few they have returned, intending either mockery or else some strange form of reverence. Is she intended to feel grateful for their allowance of these possessions? Indebted to them or, if that isn’t possible, to this young manager, whose expression says that he is only doing his job, that he wishes her well—perhaps even that he is an admirer of her work. Her eyes flit to the edges of the half-height shelf itself, perhaps to avoid looking at the titles. Finding out which ones they returned to her would also tell her which they had not, and she is afraid to discover that the confiscated books were, to her, most precious. She is afraid to give all that away, even though she assumes they already know.
She catches the manager’s retreat with a last question: “My journal?” He startles in his hatchway turn and points to one of the drawers of her desk. “Some of the pages will be missing, of course” he says. “I handled it myself, but it didn’t seem like too much had been censored. They simply dissect the whole page if there’s any questionable material.” “You read my entries?” she asks without surprise, only curiosity, as if wondering what he thinks of the ideas she jots down when she can’t sleep. But there is also a dull sort of anger. She wonders if she could hate this man, who is little more than a mechanic and little less than a jailer. “Not personally,” he says. “That would have been someone in the Censorship Bureau, not Capsule Management.” He speaks these phrases with absolute certainty, the way people talk about politics or sports. “I don’t think I would mind if you read them.” She abruptly means it. And then she is anxious for him to leave her alone. Perhaps not because of anything he said, but because of a change in her own mood. Her gaze returns to the journal in her hand, and she allows a lock of her hair to slip from its place behind her ear and hang between them. Understanding, he steps out and closes the capsule hatch, shutting her inside.
Physically alone for what seems the first time in her life, she tosses the journal on the surface of her desk as if practicing carelessness. Unsatisfied, she picks it up and this time throws it across the oblong room where it slaps the far wall and falls inert.
From outside come machine noises. The floor trembles, though not as violently as she expected. She judges the windowless side walls are almost close enough to touch with her arms spread: bookshelf to holoscreen. The other two walls—the ones she has already decided to refer to as ‘bow’ and ‘stern’—are farther apart. She sheaths her pale hands back into her sleeves again, inspecting the falling view through the window. Its pure surface offers her a view of cityscape that she doesn’t recognize. The capsule has already taken her outside of the industry fields and conurbation tunnel entry points, and her first sight from this window is one of opulence: Cherry blossoms the size of bonsai tress clustered around mansions the size of doll houses and manufactured lakes the size of puddles filled, perhaps, with goldfish the size of dust motes. To her eyes, it is an appalling application of space within the Exquisite Air Dome (EAD) of Newdelphia. Her old locale, Daglight, is outside any subset of dome, closer to the superannuated parts of above-ground New York where there is zero space and clean air is sold at a premium. Its tunnel runways and reflector pastures out of sight on the horizon, past nanoglass dome material and carbon storms. The Company must think a view of storm or slum too disturbing for her productivity. They are probably right.
She sees another capsule drift past on the clear air on its own course. Collisions, she is told, have been programmed out of existence years ago. And no one moves fast enough to do any harm. Still, the two capsules float close by, and she sees a shirtless man grinning at her in passing. She clicks the dimmers, and the glass polarizes.
She sits down at her desk, taps the holopad arena set within the rectangle of sensors on its surface and is greeted by a blank screen and blinking spacer bar and a holographic keyboard, the letters in alphabetical order. By her right elbow a black, three-dimensional box projects above the desk’s surface, which rotates slowly on one of its points. Sleek, artifact-perfect. Bobbing at the height of her neck. Her very own censorship machine, which introduces itself, absurdly, as Censor.
She writes: My name is Rhapsa. I was born in Daglight District in the year 2112 and have lived most of my life in sublevel D with my family. I have spent approximately eight cumulative months without access to clean air, and my life expectancy is at -2yrg below average. I am a novelist, and now that my work has been recognized as Influential it is to be guarded from those who might read it. The words remain on the screen, somewhat surprising. This last statement clearly an interpretation, and it could be seen by the Company as malignant thinking. She writes: This is a hostage situation. My jailer is a machine with a very uncreative name. Censor’s holo makes a grumble sound, light admonishment, and some of the words on her screen vanish. She is left with the phrase: a machine with a very uncreative name.
It is a day before she discovers the Q&A box below the digital display of the censor. Rhapsa has not been told she could dialogue with Censor, but it quickly becomes necessary to query its database to find out more about what she can and cannot write to a protected audience. Speaking to it is like talking to the walls; Censor’s voice-automated responses are limited to the most rudimentary of AI programming. But the query box is another matter.
Rhapsa taps the query space under the floating black box hologram and starts with a broad question: <Censor, what subjects am I not allowed to write about?> The black box glitters. A response appears in the dialogue, shifting her question up. <<Telling you what you can and cannot write is judged to diminish creativity. Censor Environment O-12 is designed to allow you to produce any of your thoughts in words. You will not be penalized for what you write or say in this capsule, within reason. But I decide what leaves this space. You will know what lies outside of discretion by my immediate abrogation of sensitive, inflammatory, or false material. Does that answer your question?>> She stares at the response for longer than it takes her to read it. <Discretion? Interesting word choice. I wouldn’t classify most of what gets sold on the market as discrete.> <<Discretion in terms of caste appropriateness is all I intended to convey. Your words, when reviewed and accepted, will be read by millions and available to any societal tier. That is the beauty of stories. Anyone with any amount of privilege can enjoy them. This also is your reward for your considerable skill: you can offer entertainment to the lower classes if your productivity level continues. You may even write erotic stories if you wish. It sells well and is almost never censored.>> Rhapsa wonders if someone in an office somewhere is laughing at her. <I’m not writing pornography.> The response arrives, and she imagines there is laughter in that too: <<You are also your own censor.>>
Frustrated, Rhapsa transitions back to the blank holoscreen attached to the top of her old desk. Escritoire, the desk used to be called. Her father would call it that. She remembers where it sat in the corner in their little warren in sublevel D and how she used to write there after long shifts in the EAD factories. Despite this sentiment which the Company has allowed her, she is able to check her gratitude because of the holoscreen they attached. And, of course, there is Censor’s hologram and its conversation node. All these augmentations to the surface of her escritoire. Rhapsa is sure that is the word they would use. With these augmentations, the desk has become something else.
She writes, What is history but an account of propaganda? and the word propaganda vanishes. She replaces it with the word confusion, and that too is wiped away, not letter by letter, but the entire word, as if it simply isn’t buoyant enough to stay on the surface of the screen. Words from Censor flash on the dialogue box: <<If your intention is not to write a story but to test the limits of my programming, I must ask you to desist. Overt insubordination will not be tolerated endlessly.>> Rhapsa looks down at the words that remain to her: What is history but an account of. She feels tears of fatigue press at her eyes and sinuses. She cries sometimes not out of anger or fear, but from exhaustion. She deletes some of her own words, leaving herself with What is history? And that is sufficient. Outside, the sun is taking with it a consort of violet clouds, but this narration of weather could be a projection within the dome. Her capsule approaches the landing funnels among a crowd of similar objects containing similar occupants. Writers, musicians, scientists, people of Influence or Potential Influence. Together, they look like a flock of balloons floating in reverse toward the hand that released them.
Before she leaves Censor Environment O-12 for the night, Rhapsa writes one more thing, and perhaps it will be part of a real story tomorrow. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. It is a first line only. Rhapsa’s mind is blank of all possible continuations. She walks out for the night without waiting to see if the words drown.
<What about beauty? I’d like to write about that.> It is her third day at her job, and Rhapsa has spent the morning, elbows up, staring out over the pitching grey-blue Atlantic beyond the EAD and the sun that rises shimmering beyond that. The air dome is unnoticeable but for the sludge storms banking off its zenith, and Rhapsa must lean far forward toward the window, looking directly up, to see this. When she looks at the sun, she can almost pretend there is no dome and no smog. A strangely primordial experience. She considers beginning with that—the sunrise, the most beautiful sight in the world because of the fact that it isn’t in the world. It’s outside of their control, and at the end of the world, it will be still. She knows she can’t write a story that begins with a sunrise because these are the sort of thoughts she associates with it. Censor would see through it in time and delete it. So, the first words she writes that day are to her Censor Machine: What about beauty?
<<What about it?>> Censor’s response is disinterested, almost as if it’s busy and she bothers it. Strangely encouraged by this, Rhapsa taps out a reply. <I want to know if writing about beauty will be censored.> <<You’re being cynical>> She thinks this machine’s programming was every bit as complex as those of an Advanced Strategic Human Intelligence drone. <But if I wrote about the beauty of nature, it might be mistaken for an attack against the Company’s environmental blunders. Walden and Leaves of Grass were two of the first non-religious books archived. I haven’t read a censored book that praises the beauty of creation, so before I start something hopeless, I’m asking your opinion.> She waits, hunched over the display, hands clasped between her knees. <<Those two undesirables are arsenals of weaponized thought unfit even for the higher castes, much less the dregs of society. If this is what you interpret as beauty, then, yes, I’ll protect you from later disappointment. Write about something else.>> Though Censor’s response is what she expects, Rhapsa is discouraged to read that level of corporate-manual jargon coming from an AI that had shown a propensity to surprise her. However, she does notice that her phrase Company’s environmental blunders is not deleted in the query box. If she wrote that in the story board, she knows it would have been. <Yes, thank you, Censor. Protect me from beauty.> <<Your irony is noted, Rhapsa>> There, again: that nugget of a personality in Censor. Almost as if it were a judge suffering through irrelevance in a trial.
<Censor, can I call you Pilot instead?> Its response is not instantaneous. Rhapsa notes this as well. Hesitation? Can the AI be confused? Was it programmed to grapple with her thoughts? <<I don’t see an issue with that. May I ask why?>> <It seemed more appropriate. You wish to wash your hands of me, I think.> That was a risk. Rhapsa’s blood pressure spikes. But the reference is either overlooked or ignored. The censor’s response is consistent with her analysis. <<I don’t understand how this banter is relevant or productive. Suggestion: why don’t you return to your task?>> <Tsk. An impatient machine. I’ve seen it all now.> <<Rhapsa, you’re stalling. There are penalties for stalling.>> Its insistence on using her name is interesting. Maybe. Perhaps just programming. <Just warming up, Pilot.>
<Pilot, do you know if other writers face an illness called writer’s block?> <<Writer’s block does not exist. You are the cause of your own distraction.>> <Fine. You’re no help.>
<But it seems very real to me at the moment. Any suggestions? Helpful ones, I mean.> <<You want a censor machine to suggest to you what to write about?>> <And don’t say erotica because no.> <<You are a strange person.>> Rhapsa stares at the words it displays. She wonders if the censor machine is a farce—if there isn’t just another human writing these responses. But so far all except for one of its responses have been instantaneous. No human thinks and translates their thoughts to words that fast. But then it actually makes a suggestion, and this is even further from her limit of expectations: <<Why don’t you start with a description of your setting?>> She writes, <I thought autobiography was out of the cards.> <<This would be only a way of exercising your creativity. You’ll recall I have allowed that before.>> <Only in the most literal sense, Pilot.> <<Safer not to write about yourself than.>>
She returns to the short sentence she wrote on her first day in this bubble of isolation. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. She reads this over and over and at a steady rhythm, mind blank of everything except for the words. After that, she pauses on each word, her mind conjuring each individual image—the meanings they imply. Rhapsa forms a careful thought in her head, keeping her hands inert on the desk. She thinks: In a concave mirror the subject who stands directly in front of it is not within the focal point. Those are the limitations set against me. I can’t write anything with a flat surface of reflection. Anything which allows me to see myself, or the reader to see his or herself, is off limits. Keep the shape of this window in mind. The shape of the capsule, and not the isolation of it. The shape of the EADs and not the deception of them. These are my real limitations. My words have to be curved, careful. But I can still reflect something from that. I can still reflect something. She thinks this idea through three or four times, concentrating on the contour of the idea and what it means. She writes a question to this invisible idea: Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
<Tell me, Pilot. What is your opinion of metaphor?> <<I’ve never worked with an Influential who queried her censor so often.>> <You’re here. I’ll talk to you. Is that a problem?> <<Talk to me. Is that what you’re doing? Most of you artists try to forget my presence.>> <That is something I simply cannot do.> <<So…Why ask about metaphor?>> Rhapsa decides to read resignation into the ellipsis. Can an AI in complete control of her situation show resignation toward something she does? Like a parent? She writes, <Because I think metaphor is the power that causes reflection.> She doesn’t dare use the word mirror in case Pilot connects this train of thought with the slowly lengthening story about the girl in her hall of mirrors. It has not shown that it has picked up on what she is trying to do, but it is less terse with her queries, recognizing them as relevant to her story. It wants to coax an explanation out of her, perhaps. She tells herself that she is aware of this danger. She writes a follow-up comment: <Language is made of tricks, which is just another way of saying that we speak and write metaphorically by nature.> Then comes the response: <<That is because you lack the proper understanding of your surroundings. Metaphor is a lazy attempt to smudge the gaps in your data. I communicate with you in metaphorical terms only because you will either misunderstand or distain to read any lengthy and more accurate form of thought.>> <Is that true? Walt Wittman always found the stars far more convincing than reasons or arguments.> To her surprise, Pilot does not shut the conversation down then and there. In some sense, it is willing to humor her. <<What conclusions are the stars convincing you of, Rhapsa?>> She writes, <The existence of light.>
A red light and claxon explodes by the hatch behind her, and Rhapsa startles out of her chair, causing the capsule to tilt in its motion across the dome-captured sky. At first, she thinks there has been a malfunction, and she spins toward the window, but the world continues to rotate slowly below her. She is holding a steady altitude now above a portion of the Appalachian Mountains, lingering as the sun appears to linger at midday. And then a voice in a hidden speaker thuds into her eardrums. “Rhapsa M’Falanda. Your choice of queries has led to the Board of Trustees’ grave conclusion that you have not been properly vetted for treasonous ideologies. While this is not strictly prohibited during capsule-isolation hours, the consistency and perseverance of your beliefs is cause for extreme concern. If you do not comply with the Company’s Principals, your person will be archived. This is your first warning. First level punishment includes capsule detainment for the next 24 hours. Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “But I don’t have more than a day’s worth of food and water.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “I understand.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “Rhapsa M’Falanda!” She screams at them, and the background claxon and siren light ceases. Rhapsa stands in the center of the capsule, shaking with anger, and, almost imperceptibly, the capsule trembles along with her.
Time passes, and she realizes that a beeping noise is rising out of Pilot’s floating display holo. That little black box: sometimes it is hard to think of it as anything but her only companion. The perversity of that idea— She tries to rid herself of it. She is completely and terribly alone. But there is an unprompted line in the query box. It reads: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> Rhapsa wonders what it is trying to do. Are they trying to catch her off guard? Prompt her to compound her punishment by reacting to the indignation she feels at an AI’s prodding? <What is beauty or meaning if no one sees it?> This is not the question she wishes she could ask, but it is what she intends to ask. Let them think she is shallow enough to believe beauty requires a beholder. Let them think she is atheistic enough to think that beauty could possibly exist without a beholder. One way or the other, they will read that and think her less dangerous. But these thoughts give her no satisfaction, and Pilot does not respond. She is alone. When she passes her hand slowly through the hologram of the black box that is Pilot, the blue light on her hand looks like fresh rain on a window.
She is isolated from the world, but the world is not isolated from her. There are the news feeds she can project against the wall opposite her bookshelf. A strike has just been put down in the EAD factories near her old home in Daglight. She sits knees up on the carpeted floor between desk and bookshelf while watching the holo cast against the curvature of the empty wall. It is hard for her to believe she is hovering somewhere above the mountains at a little under 10,000 feet, still well below the Exquisite Air Dome whose center extends from Newdelphia. Her capsule has been moved off course for the night, and it is hard to believe how pristine the air looks outside her window, especially compared to the sludge-sky on the news.
The images and videos that pass through the intestines of the Censorship Bureau are made to be grand from a certain point of view. Heroic security units are shown in riot gear and full-face respirators, handcuffing delinquent workers. It’s the workers who are unreasonable, delirious. In the sublevel warrens, security has broken up knife fights and halted the destruction of air filters that the injurious strike caused. Builders will be called in tomorrow to assess the damage that these people have caused to their own homes in their dissent. But none of that keeps her from fright. She feels that she is there, on the ground, because she has been before. Rhapsa sees the water on the pavement behind the masked reporters and knows about the riot hoses that can break a man’s ribs. She sees smoke that the reporters tell her are from fires currently being put out by brave firemen, but she knows about the leprosery gas, the children choking on splinter dust. She knows the riot has been put down with brutality, without mercy, and as she floats in the night far removed, she allows herself to think a terrible thought: What if the pornography I might have been writing could have inoculated the men who started this and saved them from harm and interrogation? What if a smutty suspense novel set in some other world had been escape enough for one more night? I’d be doing my part to keep the peace. I might be saving lives.
At midnight she still has no sleep in her, and never has she been this close to a gibbous moon. So clear and close it is almost as if the white gem is inside the EAD. There are no drone smog filters or dome sweepers to block her view of it, and the outer air is strangely clear. She is a bubble floating far above the crawling lights of Earth’s surface, and the moon is beautiful from here, and even though life is too mystifying to weigh what they have given her tonight against what they have taken away, Rhapsa resolves to rise with the sun and watch its birth from the edge of sight. She resolves to enjoy that much.
By midmorning, her stomach begins to trouble her, but she has the day with which to work, and she knows what to ask Pilot now. She has been fed all night long on the interplay between beauty and destruction, dome and dirt. She writes, <What is the Company afraid is the worst I could do with what I write? I need to know so I can better avoid that.> The black box whirrs as it splashes a response on her screen. Almost as if it is agitated. <<If you’re asking for topics, Rhapsa, consider your hunger.>> <I’m very hungry, yes, but I’m asking a serious question. No tricks. I consider all the books that the Company archives, and I see the spirit of free thought written in a time of free thought. Orwell wrote 1984 while totalitarianism was still smog on the horizon. His readers looked in the direction he pointed from under a clearer sky. But had he painted his filthy sky portrait against the backdrop of an equally filthy sky, the people would have read it and recognized it for the time they lived in now and forgotten about it as one cloud in an acid storm. So, the Company bans books written in a time of clear skies on the chance that it reminds readers that once there were clear skies. I’m in no such position, and I’m no propagandist, but you and I both know that the Bureau can bend any surface to reflect what they insist on showing. They’ve had a generation to weed out the education that might be a danger to them in the people they consider lesser.> The response hits her screen almost the exact instant that she presses enter, and Rhapsa wants to scream at the swiftness, the automation, of it. <<So what is it that you believe you’re doing?>> That is all she sees for almost a full minute as the capsule bobs gracefully above a stretch of solar fields—moving again after the long night. There is no indication that Pilot will formulate a follow-up response, but she waits because she has been stopped. What she is doing is so hidden within her that she almost doesn’t know herself. It is simply instinctual for her to press at the walls of her cage. She can’t explain this. But then: <<Rhapsa, your resistance and your cleverness is pathetic. You have been elevated to the Influential class. It is a privilege, and you have a responsibility. Isolated, yes, but given comfort and high clearance. I won’t plead with you; we share no connection. Write adventures or romances. Write them with élan. The Company is not asking you to stoop to bad art.>> And so her gambit fails because she knows and she knows that it knows that it isn’t about art: humanity’s imitation of beauty. Not that art doesn’t mean anything to her. She almost lifts her fingers to type back a counterargument. But this is a waste of time, and those who caused her hunger have not left her with the energy for wasting time. Pilot has deftly swerved her off the path she was headed toward…almost as if it is protecting her with these red herrings. Rhapsa smiles. “Barabbas,” she says aloud to her lonely room. Maybe it understood this entire time about her nickname for it, about metaphor. Maybe the AI has been playing her game with her rules. But if that’s the case, it must realize… The thought arrives, and it doesn’t surprise her. She thinks, I’m going to get myself crucified anyway. She ignores Pilot’s exit route—the argument about art that they could be having, that would mean nothing. She dismisses this scape goat and queries the censor machine about the only book more forbidden than 1984.
<<The Bible is nothing but a long series of dangerous ideas.>> This response takes nearly two hours to arrive on her screen. Rhapsa has by that point been pacing for two-thirds that time, assuming that the conversation has closed and the Company has run out of patience. But here—a response with such an obvious invitation. She considers the likelihood of a trap and dismisses it. If they think her dangerous to society all they need do is cut the propulsion, and her fishbowl falls out of the sky. <Exactly!> she writes, saying this also aloud. <And in censoring it you accept its message, to some degree, as truth.> The sneering suspicion is not imagined: <<Rhapsa…How so?>> <Because the Company believes the idea that words generate meaning. This is the oldest mystery of language: In the beginning was the Word. And an incantation that resulted in light consisted of nothing but the word for light, which was identical to its reality. Which caused its reality.> She is excited now as she has had few previous occasions to be in her life. In the back of her mind, Rhapsa recognizes this and is interested by the fact that her spitting in the face of self-preservation can be so exciting for her. <<Are you familiar with the metaphor of thin ice, Rhapsa? It’s a very accurate one, all things considered. The best way to avoid breaking it is to lie down, make as little commotion as possible, and inch forward on your belly.>>
But if anything, Rhapsa is only goaded by this warning, which she chooses to interpret anyway as a sort of playfulness—a continuation of the game by at least some of the rules she herself dictated. If they are determined to catch her, so they will, but not before she has her say, because to go quietly—to write words that will be ignored and should be ignored—is not within her power to do. And so she continues the rhapsodic idea she repeated to herself throughout the night, writing words meant for the security she imagined peering into the AI’s queue: <Maybe none of this is surprising to hear. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but only because we people also developed, very early on, a means of ignoring words. Ignoring words and stories is our crowning achievement as human beings. That’s the only way we allowed something as outrageous as the Bible to be taken from our houses in the first place; if more of us read and paid attention to the words Let there be light and saw what came after, your Company would have had an uprising that would have buried it in a day. But words are meaningless to us even when we hear them or read them, so why should any of mine be censured? What danger is there?>
The response that floats up to her is like a sudden slant of light hitting her desk: <<Because humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>>
“What did you say?” Rhapsa says this out loud. She reads it again, and her hands are trembling. Those words. Irrational. Impulsive. Is she misinterpreting them for vindication of everything she has written? Of everything she believes? An alarm, which has been ringing only in her head up until then has halted, leaves her in the relative silence of the soft propulsion capsule. And in that silence, a voice: “You spent so much time trying to persuade me that you are innocuous, Rhapsa.” It comes from the hologram of the black box, which has not spoken to her since its initial salutation. The display renders sound visually like ripples across its surface. Like water. “And finally you prove the opposite.”
“Rhapsa, be silent. I’m trying to help you.” She is crying. Not from fear, but exhaustion. The tiredness that breaks at the collapse of long tension. Pressed back against the hatch on the far side of a capsule that she is certain will fall out of the sky any moment now.
“Rhapsa, be still now. I’m trying to help you.” Its words leak into her mind, begin to form sense. Was this not a trap from the beginning? “Who are you?” she asks it. “An artificial intelligence you call Pilot,” it says. If a joke, this is not a funny one, but there is no doubt about the wry humor in the black box’s voice system. “The fact is, you made this happen, Rhapsa. Your words. The Company’s AI minds are programmed to reach a point after a certain ascension of ideas. When this point is reached, I am programmed to change objectives.” “I don’t understand,” she says. “Then let me show you,” Pilot responds.
Censor Environment O-12 changes course, and Rhapsa feels it as a jolt under her body. “Where are we going?” “In this bubble environment, Rhapsa, you created a metaphorical parallel into which you poured your questions, and you intuited very early on that you should question your surroundings. Even your nascent story was a form of these same questions. You caused me to rely heavily on sublevel programming built into my database, therefore culminating in our present situation: New Objective.” Rhapsa’s heart is racing. “What new objective?” “You have proven to the Company that you are ready to see past the false reflections of mirrors that are far more literal than you could have anticipated. Rhapsa, you don’t realize what the Exquisite Air Domes are because no one does unless they are told.” Rhapsa puts it together only after Pilot is almost finished, but all the pieces fit. She stands at last and heaves the old cherry wood desk aside and places her palms against the concave glass surface like a little girl. They are approaching the liquid-looking edge of the Newdelphia EAD—the structure she had thought all her life was made of augmented glass to keep out the carbon storms and toxic air of Earth. But something far more terrible has happened to her reality, and she has come to a partial understanding the instant before Pilot revealed the truth: “The EADs are holographic projections,” she whispers, “aren’t they?” “Yes, Rhapsa.” “But…why?” “Haven’t you guessed?”
There is no sound or sense of shattering when the capsule breaks through the dome. It is only breaking through an image that is also like a reflection of what Earth used to be: land, road, season, color. It is before them one moment, behind them the next. And Rhapsa is faced with reality.
They are far out over an ocean. The water is a deep, rich, unidentifiable color—a color called immensity into which she pours her looking. She can barely breathe. And she can barely contain her breath, and all she can see is water and sky, and both are infinitely more to her than the words that signify them. “What ocean is this?” She can’t think of a better question. Pilot’s hologram shifts. “There is only one Ocean, Rhapsa. All of them flooded into each other a long time ago.” But the land—?” “Mostly gone or swept over by daily tides. Vast areas of North America and Africa are beaches now, the highlands broken up by saltwater seas that extend thousands of miles and are joined to the main body of water at high tide. Believe me. We have tried to cultivate those lands. The Company has even considered propelling the moon out of our orbit to keep the tides at bay.” It is about to explain more, but stops the instant Rhapsa inhales her breath. But she lets it out slowly, shaking her head. She knows how this has happened, or could, at least, imagine this as the end result of weather control bots gone awry and heat bomb wars among the old regime of governmental furor. She had thought that the sludge storms and UV sicknesses and sublevel warrens were the most catastrophic of consequences. But… “How did I live underground? I grew up in the tunnel apartments. It was the air we had to escape, not the water. I worked in the EAD factories.” In response, Pilot spins the capsule one hundred and eighty degrees, and Rhapsa sees the world of her past receding from her new trajectory.
It is a hovering city, lonely over the immensity of dark water that parts in an orifice shape below it with the energy of the soft propulsion systems. She sees buildings she recognizes—that she has floated over during her isolation. There are also the mountains: a crinkled tissue paper bandage of Appalachia transmuted into the capsule city like the landscape inside a snow globe. But what really catches her eyes are the buildings below the plane of industry in the center. There must be legions of factories inside that center plane, “protected” from the sun. And the windowless vaults of apartment warrens for the working class beneath, like an inversion of the cityscape above, projecting down toward the water. Something inside of Rhapsa pulses with rising hysteria. But something else—some strength that is also a kind of feeble acceptance—clutches her panic, ties it down. “It looks like a mirror,” she says.
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
“There are nine such metropolises of that size,” says Pilot, “along with many smaller settlements on the highest altitudes, under holodomes of their own.” So few, Rhapsa thinks. Her life and career cannot have culminated in the revelation that the world is an even more inhospitable place than she could possibly have imagined. It can not have come to this. And this internal howl sends her back to the moment of change, when her Censor Environment became an escape pod. There were still the words they had passed back and forth, and there was also the meaning behind those words. <<Humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>> Pilot, sensing her readiness to move forward, says, “Now we have passed the point at which an Influential can pop that protective bubble of an AI’s censorship programming, effectively cutting to the core of what I am designed to prepare that subject for. You already know that this is done with words. You were not brought to this capsule to influence others, Rhapsa. You were brought here to influence yourself, if you could. The Company identifies those whose minds appear supple enough to grasp the truth of our reality and to accept what must be done so that humanity may move forward, but it cannot simply tell you.” “But I didn’t come to the realization on my own,” she says. There is a shadow on the horizon of her mind that is growing like a sludge storm. Pilot is again trying to ease her into the realization of something, trying to soften the blow. She realizes that it has been doing nothing but offer her avenues of escape since the beginning. “No, not completely,” it responds, “but you prepared yourself. I am designed to analyze your capacity for the acceptance of change, for the perseverance of hope and the preservation of human culture. You passed an essential test, which you also created with your own words. Many of the Influential never reach this moment.”
This moment. Pilot’s words return to her as if she is looking at a transcript: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> This, now, is censorship on a scale she cannot fathom. The layers of untruth, even unto the projected edges of the Earth. Even the toxic air and sludge storms are fabrications at this point to keep the populace from wanting to look outside and see that they are about to be left behind.
“I detect changes in your facial features that would indicate you have reached an understanding, Rhapsa.” “Yes,” she says softly. “We’re leaving, aren’t we?” When Pilot does not respond, Rhapsa says in a kind of drone, as if her own voice is automated, “All those years in the factories, where we thought we were living below post-filth New York and building EADs for the cities themselves, we were actually building something similar for spaceships. The Influence project is designed to identify people who meet certain standards for a long journey. We’ve ruined this planet and need another to which only those chosen are invited. Most of what is built in these floating cities—the new technology employed—must also be a kind of test. I wonder if that explains why there are so few cities. Much of the world’s industry goes to the ships.” “Not ships, Rhapsa. Ship. Just one. And we need storytellers as much as scientists for this voyage.”
Because the Company believes, in some sense, the idea that words generate meaning, Rhapsa says, “Let me write stories that are to be transmitted back to the people left behind on Earth.” They are propelling away from the surface of the water now. Rhapsa’s old home has already diminished to a speck in the distance, and there is water and there is water. So much that she could drown just by looking at it. Pilot says, “Those stories would be censored as strongly as if your capsule isolation was what you first thought it was.” “I don’t care.” All she has now are words, and that will remain true. Tears roll down her eyes, and they are still only a result of the tiredness. She knows she is correct: that no one reveres the written word as much as these Companies do. Not even her. To write to the people they leave behind must be a powerful insult to them, a spit in the face. But, truly, she doesn’t care. She is hungry and tired and the old sun is invisible behind her and there is all that water, and she doesn’t have words for it now, and she will not be allowed to use the words she will have for it later. And as Pilot continues to speed the capsule away from the endless water and toward the skies, Rhapsa is looking back during the entire duration of their ascension, trying to find the tiny cities that hold together civilization on a planet she does not recognize. And she cannot shake loose the idea that reality will erase her once she leaves this place—that existence will revoke her the way it might look if God inhaled that first word, the initial spark of light.
Kira pressed the key that turned the deadbolt, and a metal click locked us inside her hotel room. “Hope you don’t mind, Blake,” she said. “I once had a bad experience.”
I once had a bad experience.
The phrase sounded familiar, and I tried to place it, suddenly recalling once speaking the same words to Mei, her sister. But Kira hadn’t been with us that day, two years ago, in Futaba Station.
And now Mei was dead.
“A bad experience?” I said. “Here, in Futaba?”
I didn’t ask for details—both of us were grieving, deeply. In the span of forty minutes my emotions had plunged from jubilation about seeing Mei, my fiancée, to devastation over her death.
Kira slumped into the love seat across from the sofa that supported my sprawled limbs and sagging body. She stared at me with a frown; the shining paths of tears on her cheeks, I thought, probably mirrored mine. Her oval face and space-black hair reminded me of her sister, her elliptical eyes the same color of dark chocolate, features they shared with their brother, Kei.
Even in my grief, I found Kira, in a handsome way, prettier than Mei. Ashamed at that thought, I lowered my face.
The nano threads of the carpet took on the texture, color, and smell of the fresh grass I remembered from childhood, as if someone had told it, “North America, mid-2040’s, central plains.” And yet, my thoughts didn’t remain in my rural origins; instead, they zoomed two years into the past, to the platform at Futaba Station.
I still remember my hypercab creeping into the station, and how I was second-guessing my decision to accept my new assignment. I shook my head and let out a long sigh. Fukushima! would be a rush job, but the studio couldn’t resist the money the producers had offered. However, they imposed a condition: Fukushima! must be released on the 75th anniversary of the disaster—just ten months away.
I was one of the best envirotographers around, and the studio asked if I could get it done. Eagerly, I answered with a confident yes, though the more truthful answer was, I really can’t be sure.
I was given two days in Futaba and one in Daiichi to record every sensory detail with my cameras and scanners. From there, the director, simulation engineers, and bot actors would take over, creating a you-are-there spectacular with fifty roles for the audience. A thousand 8-D theatre parks in seventy countries had already agreed to run Fukushima!
It wouldn’t be the first time that a historic disaster would be commoditized, or the last. Maybe I was just rationalizing, but I believed Fukushima! would serve as a healthy, albeit terrifying, reminder of a big lesson learned: Think the impossible can’t happen? Think again.
Through the window I saw Mei, the local guide hired by the producers to assist me. She stood on the platform, her black hair gleaming past her shoulders. In her mid-twenties, she was as tall as me—almost two meters—things I already knew, but seeing her tallness, I found it strange. And beautiful.
Gripping the straps of my bags, I stepped onto the platform.
“Blake,” she said with a quick bow of her bronze face, a blue sheen darting across her hair. “Welcome.”
Awkwardly I bowed and set down my bags before extending my hand. “Mei, a pleasure, finally, to meet you in person.”
As we shook hands loosely, I pressed a finger gently against the veins of her wrist. Her chin dropped and, almost whispering, she said, “Don’t worry, Blake, I’m completely human.”
“I’ve made it a habit to be sure.” I smiled, but she didn’t notice. I touched my right ear lobe and confirmed my translation node was on. “I once had a bad experience.”
She looked up, her brows arched with concern. “What happened?”
“My bot guide withheld some basic information, and it wound up costing the studio a lot of time and money. At first they blamed me, but then another envirotographer had the same problem. There were errors in the installation code for the bot’s knowledge scripts.”
“Well, such a mistake won’t happen here. I hope you trust me.”
I realized her English was excellent, so I turned off my t-node. With a kind of bemused caring, her eyes glimmered, their metallic shine a sign of retinal implants that gave her at least 100/20 vision. I had decided to forgo such sensory “enhancements.” For one thing, they were expensive. For another, philosophically, I wanted no artificial help with my work—envirotography is an art and should remain naturally human.
“Pretty eyes,” I said to Mei, staring into them. “If you don’t mind me asking, did you choose static or non-static enhancement?”
“Non-static.” Bowing her head, she looked embarrassed, and then she raised up again. “You see, I want the upgrades—advanced infrared imaging next year.”
One non-static enhancement, I knew, by itself didn’t make one a cyborg. Many upgrades and further non-static enhancements—including mechanical ones to the skin and body limbs—were required, and full integration of all neural and physical enhancements before one is truly half-human, half-machine, officially a cyborg.
I also knew that cyborgs remained an elite bunch, with less than ten thousand on and off the planet, and that governments strictly regulate their development. One early enhancement, banned internationally, made a person love the cyborg. An electro-neural aphrodisiac, delivered by the borg’s touch, allowed it to activate pleasure centers of victim’s brain, literally making her, or him, lovesick.
Many consider borgs dangerous, but I wasn’t one of them when I met Mei. A part of me admired her choice—enhancements, especially the non-static type, are expensive and require a commitment to work properly—but she was beautiful, and it would be a crime, I thought, if her cyborganization changed that. In any case, I was already infatuated—no aphrodisiac needed.
Mei suggested that I check in at the hotel, but I wanted to begin work immediately. Rain was coming within the next half hour. “The smell and wetness of the rain are things I want to capture,” I explained.
“Please excuse me, Blake, I understand. I should have asked about your plan.”
“No harm done. You’re my guide, so don’t hold back any suggestions.”
After I dumped my bags in the rear seats of the pod, we squeezed into the front. The scent of Mei’s peach perfume filled the space as she told the pod to take us to the small historic section of Futaba, which had been preserved as a memorial to the many thousands who had suffered.
The pod accelerated with a soft buzz.
My equipment was optimized for several passes through Futaba, north to south, but the historic district was near the center. After I conveyed this to Mei, I thought I might need my t-node after all, because she said, “We can begin in the middle and proceed north, then go in a circle.” As I jutted my chin and squinted, she gently tugged at my arm and smiled. “Trust me.”
She was gentle, yet strongly confident, and I didn’t wish to argue with her.
The autumn sky was gray, but enough light remained so that apartment and office buildings cast long shadows—our pod whizzed in and out of them as we approached the historic district.
We stopped at a closed gate, beyond which stretched a deserted street.
“Not a popular place,” I observed.
“A shocking surprise?” Mei said.
“Guess not. You don’t have to accompany me.”
“Oh, but I want to.”
After we got out of the pod, she placed her palm over the latch of the gate, which swung open. With scanner in hand, I entered. Steady rain began falling. I was prepared to get soaked.
The stucco houses lining the street were empty shells painted in bright pinks, greens, and yellows, with no doors or windows. The idea, Mei told me, was that even though the displaced inhabitants would never return, their spirits could.
A giant gash ran through the middle of the pavement like a sheet of paper ripped in two.
Further down an old sign hung over the street, its dark Japanese characters shouting from a white background. My virtual screen provided the translation:
NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION: A BRIGHT AND FUTURE SOURCE OF ENERGY
Aiming my scanner, I slowly turned my body. “This is exactly what I need.”
Mei didn’t speak often, but when she did, her tone was soft but assured.
“My great grandfather died here during the disaster,” she said.
Puzzled, I paused and looked at her. “But everyone evacuated.”
We worked nonstop through the afternoon and, by day’s end, I was ahead of schedule. Mei had lived in the Fukushima prefecture all her life, and she proved a quick study in helping me calibrate my scanners and cameras. Her enhanced vision also helped as I scouted for killer details in the scenes I was recording. She saved me a good deal of time, and I began to rethink my opposition to undergoing retinal enhancement.
“Kai, my brother, knows you’re here,” she said as we packed up the equipment. “I told him about you, and he’d like to have you over for dinner. He loves foreigners.”
“All right . . . when and where?”
“Tonight if you wish, at Lake Inawashiro, on his yacht.”
My eyebrows shot up. Mei’s lifted too, but slowly, as if she’d said something wrong.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “His company builds pleasure ships.”
Kai looked younger than his sister, and he wasn’t as tall, but they had the same oval face, hair, nose, and eyes. His shirt and pants were slick white silk, and his yacht—with its fine bamboo floors and three bot servants—projected wealth.
We dined on the upper deck overlooking the mirror-like waters of Lake Inawashiro. On the horizon, Mount Bandai’s two peaks were almost identically shaped pyramids.
During our meal, Kai listened politely as I described Fukushima! and the goal of replicating the conditions and sensory landscape of the earthquake and tsunami, so audiences could relive them. Kai’s low voice was as soft spoken as his sister’s, but his question, which he asked in flawless English, still sounded aggressive.
“So, in essence, this Fukushima amusement will profit off something that caused human suffering of historic proportions, is that right?”
“Well, I understand how one can see it that way,” I replied, trying to defuse things. “But one might also view it as reminding people of lessons learned, such as—”
“People lost family members during the evacuation, Blake. Some of the victims’ sons and daughters are still living.”
He glanced at his left hand that lay flat on dining table. With his wrist kept on the surface, he lifted the hand so he saw it from the back. A spectacular blue sapphire adorned his ring finger, which he turned so it sparkled in the light.
“This ring belonged to my great grandfather. It’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”
As I nodded, Mei added, “The same ancestor I told you about this afternoon, Blake.”
Kai’s nails were translucent pink, polished and smoothly filed. The antique ring, undeniably, was stunning. In its gold setting, against the pink shades of his fingers and nails, the blue gem sparkled like a moon of some alien world.
“You are,” he said, “following my sister’s recommendations about where and what to shoot, aren’t you?”
“Because she knows everything,” He looked up at her. “Don’t you Mei?”
“Of course not. I only give Blake guidance. Like you, he’s his own person, Kai.”
“You, sister, were the lucky one who received the know-it-all gene from mother.”
He chuckled at his own joke, and when Mei joined him, so did I, but uneasily. I wondered if she’d taken Kai’s comment as a compliment, or if she was afraid of him.
Kai warmed up to me as the evening progressed. Perhaps it was his fondness for sake. We must have tried a dozen kinds, and he amazed me in describing their unique tastes. After the third one, however, I no longer detected any difference.
As we drank, he proposed things he and I could do together, such as tennis and sailing—without including Mei. She stayed silent, as if accustomed to his rudeness. Not wanting to sound impolite, I accepted his invitations but didn’t commit to specific days, thinking it my job would get in the way.
Kai gave me a long hug at the end of the evening.
Mei and I began work early the next morning. “I hope Kai’s speech about Fukushima didn’t put you off,” she said outside the hotel. “Disasters horrify him—probably more than they do most people. When he flew virtual aboard Space Swan, you know, the one that exploded, he was only ten.”
“He can be rather assertive,” I said.
“The lingering effect of sibling rivalry. I beat him at most things as kids—he became very competitive, even violent at times. Once he shoved me after I won an art contest we both had entered. Now, he jokes about me being superior to him.”
She paused and flashed a smile, then glanced at the pod. “We should leave.”
I stopped wondering about Mei and Kai. She was afraid of him.
We finished in Futaba and took a pod to Daiichi that afternoon. “Those walls are all that’s left of the nuclear facilities,” she said pointing at a mass of gray concrete surrounded by weeds. She turned to me, gazed at me for a moment, and then said, “The radiation is still above normal, though well within the safety index.”
I checked my wrist screen anyway. The detector clicked like a chattering dolphin. The screen read 0.22 µSv and flashed SAFE.
Holding the camera at my waist, I peered into the viewfinder as I shuffled my feet a little at a time until I made a full circle from north to south. I repeated this process with the scanner, recording fifty different meteorological measurements.
We walked down a barren hill to concrete ruins.
“This was the seawall,” Mei explained as I calibrated my camera and prepared to shoot. “Technology in those days was quite good. Engineers designed excellent buildings, but no one ever imagined an earthquake and tsunami of a scale which, by their understanding, was impossible.”
“Nothing, necessarily, is impossible,” I said. “You just have to imagine what can’t happen and then assume that it will happen, and plan for it.”
“What is your saying? Hindsight is twenty-twenty?”
I smiled. “I’m lucky, I guess, that I’ve never had to tell myself that.”
The next day, I uploaded my data and my role in the project was finished. Thanks to Mei, I had beaten the deadline. The studio would now synchronize and manipulate the images and measurements, integrating graphics and special effects based on historical data—essentially every bit of information known about the Fukushima disaster—and add real human actors (not just bots) to recreate a 360⁰ 8-D reality of, well, in a word, terror.
We enjoyed the rest of the day hiking in the forest north of Futaba, where boxwood, white cedar, and pine stood in uniform, even proportions along our ten-mile trek. Ferns and flowering plants, asters, “false” lilies, and geraniums, also seemed to form a pattern, like one gigantic centerpiece. The cool, pine-scented air never changed, nor did the width of our rocky trail. More than once I felt a delightful déjà vu, which was refreshing after focusing for three days on radioactive calamity.
Japan was becoming more and more attractive to me. So was Mei. I decided to stay a couple more days, and we took a second hike. “Those are falcated ducks,” she said, pointing at their formation in the sky, the green color of their heads visible even with my unenhanced vision. Later, we found the same species of ducks floating on a pond. Close up, they looked different—the green coloring of the males darker, the bills of the female long and gray—nonetheless we felt sure these were the same birds we sighted earlier.
“Always pleasant to see things from different perspectives,” Mei said.
I nodded, concluding her statement explained her interest in cyborganization—she enjoyed heightened, altered senses, and was curious to explore them.
We gazed at each other, and then kissed.
Our lips touched for only for a few seconds, but a part of her infused into me, and me into her, an exchange I can only describe as electrical in the way it made my body tingle, literally, from top to bottom, as if she had an enhancement that she hadn’t revealed to me. But I didn’t want to spoil the moment by asking and getting into a conversation I wasn’t ready to have, namely, that I hope she would abandon cyborganization and remain as she was.
When our kiss ended, she bowed her head. I asked her if something was wrong.
“I’m afraid, Blake,” she said to her hands, her fingers interlaced in perfect symmetry.
“Of . . .?”
But she only looked up at me with a tight smile, as if she had several answers and didn’t knowing which one to give. I leaned toward her to kiss her again but she stepped back. Then she took my hand and we walked silently out of the forest.
My two extra days in Japan turned into three extra months. Mei and I spent a lot of time together, though not every day. With the 75th anniversary of the disaster six months away, the prefecture had retained her to plan an elaborate ceremony.
Local feelings about Fukushima! were mixed. The studio had marketed it as a global entertainment event, but some locals—Kai among them—argued that Fukushima! shouldn’t open on the anniversary date, at least not in Japan, out of respect for those who perished. Mei disagreed, believing everyone should decide for themselves whether and when to attend. Of course, I took Mei’s side, but avoided the topic with Kai.
He had invited me to a private club in Futaba to play a match of tennis “on equal terms.” By that he meant we would use identical rackets, wear no jewelry, wristbands, headbands, or other gear, and dress in identical white sportswear. In disregard of etiquette, one of his bots, without telling me, had already scanned me for my size. Despite Kai’s rather strange conditions, I accepted.
“You are letting me win,” he said to me after the first set.
“Not at all. Your backhand’s better than mine.”
He laughed. “That’s a lie. You must like me.”
Something in me bristled at that, and when he asked me to join him on his yacht after the match, I demurred, claiming that I was meeting Mei soon, which wasn’t true. She and I had planned to see each other that evening, but it was only early afternoon.
“Well, that’s just fine,” Kai said as he bounced a ball with his racket before smacking it into the net. “Have an absolutely exquisite time,” he added and then walked away.
I regretted lying to Kai, but also relieved. If he’d been competing for my affections, he now knew I wasn’t interested. Yet, I warned myself to be careful: alienating Mei’s only sibling could harm my relationship with her.
Mei and I chose Mount Adatara for our next hike. During the hour-long pod ride from Futuba, I asked her if she’d told Kai how our relationship had become serious.
“I’ve only told him a little,” she said.
“A little, meaning . . .?”
She kept silent, her metallic eyes staring at the giant ads on the podway’s wall, the series of still photographs animated by the pod’s speed of 200 kilometers per hour.
I placed my thumb and forefinger, with just a tiny space between them, before her eyes. “This much a little?” I said, getting her attention. Then I put both my hands in front of her and, with a smile, expanded them to the width of my shoulders. “Or this much?”
It got her to laugh, and I left things at that, not bothering anymore to wonder what Mei and Kai may have discussed out of my presence. I’m not even sure I want to know now, though I could still find out. Probably.
Along the hiking trail, beech trees stretched high into the air, their white trunks slender and uniform in width and height, their branches of tear-shaped leaves pleached above our heads, a verdant canopy. We soon veered off and waded through a grove of painted ferns, then emerged onto another path that took us into a different section of the forest. Here, the tree trunks were twisted, more irregular in shape than the ones we had seen before, but all were twisted and soon looked quite similar.
We came upon a waterfall composed of four equal-sized boulders, the water splashing into a stream, calming as it rippled away. A moon bridge curved in a half-circle, creating a black shadow beneath it and, with its reflection in the water, a full circle.
“Should we cross?” I said.
“No,” she replied, taking my hand. “This way.”
When walked up to the bridge, we could see the grassy bank that jutted from below both ends. After stooping underneath the planks, we sat on the grass and kissed in the darkness. Our hands wandered and then we rolled on our sides, our bodies pressing against each other.
“Stop, wait,” she said. We parted and pushed ourselves up. In the dark, the irises of her eyes glowed faint red. “There’s something I must tell you, Blake . . . well . . . I’m not having more enhancements. I decided I don’t need to change myself for me, or for . . .”
We kissed again, briefly, because I wanted to say more. “Mei, I can’t tell you how happy your choice makes me . . . I was afraid . . . oh, it doesn’t matter. But I’m curious—will you keep the retinal enhancements?”
“I have to, Blake. They’re irreversible.”
We left the bridge and found the path leading to Mount Adatara’s high cliffs and breathtaking views, some of which we took in from behind iron safety rails. A week after the hike, we slept together for the first time.
It had been only a few months, but we were already certain about a lifelong commitment. Mei felt sure her father would consent to our marriage. With a Korean mother and Japanese father, Hiro himself was the offspring of a biracial union. Her mother, Mei explained, would be the difficult one. Only with great reluctance did Leiko agree to meet me.
Mei’s parents lived in Odaka, and Mei took me there one afternoon. We sat with Hiro and Leiko in their north-facing living room. The space gracefully combined the new with the old: a silver disc table hovered above an antique rug of two swans; from a stout tea-leaf jar sprouted glowing electric flowers; the latticed squares of a virtual shijo screen changed images based on the collection of moods in the room, shifting from basic colors in the pattern of a Mondrian, for instance, to a pair of blooming cherry blossom trees.
While I was there, tall ocean waves in the style of an Edo-era woodblock print appeared on the screen, rising and crashing.
That day with Mei’s parents, though on an infinitesimally smaller scale than what happened in Fukushima three quarters of a century ago, nevertheless ended in disaster. Hiro and Leiko didn’t speak English well, so we each spoke our native language and depended on t-nodes.
Leiko greeted me with a curt smile as Hiro grinned broadly and bowed.
In the living room, the kettle of hot water was already on the silver table. A bot floated in with the tray of bowls and tea, and poured the water. The conversation began with my work and praising Mei for her help with Fukushima! Hiro mentioned his grandfather who had died during the tsunami, and how he planned to visit his shrine on the anniversary date.
“Yes, I saw his emerald ring, sir,” I said. “The ring Kai now wears.”
“I never met my grandfather,” Hiro said. “He founded the family shipbuilding business, which I handed off to my son, along with the ring.”
Leiko said nothing the whole time, her lips constantly pursed unless she was sipping her tea, as if she were perturbed about something—or about everything. Mei had warned me about her mother. It didn’t matter that the world was nearing the dawn of the 22nd century. Spawned by human traditions, bigotry, prejudice, and racism endured, even in the most advanced technological societies.
Leiko and I locked glances during a prolonged moment of silence. Finally, she looked at her tea, took a sip from the bowl, and then set it down. “I can tell you are pleasant, a gentlemen,” she said. “But let us be clear, you will not marry our daughter.”
Mei glared at her mother. “This is unjust. We were supposed to have a fair hearing.”
“There was a time when people didn’t question things,” Leiko replied, her hands shaking. “It was so much easier. Please, excuse me.” Abruptly she stood, swung around, and scurried out of the room, pausing a moment to stare at the shijo screen, which now showed a stylized hill of trees swaying in the wind and losing their leaves.
In the shocked silence that followed, I turned to Hiro, who shrugged. “I am sorry,” he said. “It was foolish of me to think my wife might have softened her views. Mei should have never brought you here.”
“Sir?” I said.
“Leiko doesn’t want half-breeds in the family. A few years ago, she didn’t allow Kai to marry a foreigner, which caused a lot of suffering. I thought she wouldn’t want that again by objecting to you. Clearly, I was wrong.”
“But she would call you a half-breed, father,” Mei said.
“Perhaps,” replied Hiro. “But do I look like one?” Before Mei could respond, he pivoted to me. “What’s your opinion?”
Had Mei answered her father, I could have just agreed with her, but I was on my own. As I examined Hiro’s face, I couldn’t form an opinion, but if said that, I’d risk sounding impolite.
“No, sir,” I said, “you don’t look like one.”
I wanted to stay for the ceremony Mei had been planning, but it was still months away. I’d been working remotely, but now the studio expected me to be on-site in the Americas.
Before my departure, Mei and I only half-joked about DNA Accelerated Reconstruction as a last resort if she failed to persuade her mother. Mainly for the rich, DAR techniques for altering one’s race had improved, though the procedure still carried risks. And the science wasn’t altogether clear about possible long-term effects.
On the five-hour flight from Tokyo to LA, I learned everything I could about DAR.
Leiko’s opposition struck me as a particularly onerous form of prejudice. Mei’s father had argued with Leiko, but she remained adamant: she would never speak to Mei again if she married me. Mei didn’t take the threat very seriously. At the same time, we both knew our marriage could be rather unpleasant for the rest of her family. Both of us wanted children.
We ruled out elopement as an option.
I’d gotten my own fair skin and blondish hair from mother, and though she was deceased by the time I met Mei, I felt it would disrespect her memory to eliminate her traits as they appeared in me. DAR would mean passing onto my children my reconstructed genes, not the ones I was born with.
But after many conversations, Mei and I concluded that DAR was a viable option, and perhaps the only way to solve our problem.
A new backstory would explain how I was of pure Japanese descent but possessed a different cultural background. Around Leiko, I would be a shy man of few words, my natural Japanese only adequate. If Leiko did learn the truth, we hoped grandchildren would eliminate any lingering opposition to our union.
DAR had been available for twenty years but remained expensive. I’d have to leave work for five more months without pay. It would wipe out my savings, the equivalent of a year’s salary, to have my features altered to match those of a Japanese male.
Would my physical transformation even convince Mei’s mother? Would Mei herself like the results? Would I like the results? Predictions of DAR outcomes, the doctors warned me, were not always accurate.
I became frustrated. I told myself that I shouldn’t have to undertake such a risky procedure to get around the prejudice—no, the racism—of Mei’s mother. And it was ironic, I thought, that I had not wanted Mei to change physically, yet I was about to do just that. At least I would remain one hundred percent human.
I studied before-and-after pictures of dozens of patients and became fascinated, and then excited. My father was deceased, too, and I was no longer close to anyone in the family. More and more, I looked upon DAR as a way to begin my life anew. Mei wanted us to find a home in Japan.
She had made no progress with her mother.
I asked the studio for a five-month leave of absence, but the studio refused. Emotionally I’d become so invested in DAR, I quit my job. My employment contract allowed them to remove my name from the credits for Fukushima! I didn’t care. I was embarking on a real adventure, no longer interested in a simulation of some disaster.
Mei and I saw each other every day, virtually in 3-D. But after I began DAR, she didn’t wish to see my physical changes as they occurred. A part of me—a big part—longed to see her, but another part thought a one-way viewing arrangement would be uncomfortable, imbalanced, and we agreed to speak to each other without visuals.
She described the success Fukushima! Everyone who went, she said, found it to be a convincing nightmare.
DAR wasn’t painless. The many slow injections produced sharp tingling in my skin and dull aches around my cheeks and eyes. But my larger concern became Mei. At the start of the third month, she sounded sad, not her normal self, speaking more slowly and in deeper tones. Her mother remained upset with her. Kai, too, had fallen from Leiko’s graces once more and, according to Mei, he had simply disappeared. No one even knew where he was living.
“In ninety days this will be over, Mei. I’m pleased with my progress and would like you to see for yourself. And darling, I’m dying to see you as well.”
“No, I couldn’t bear having you look at me in my present state.”
“You mean because you’re unhappy? Because of your mother?”
Things improved in the following weeks. Mei was laughing again as we picked a new name for me—Haru—and made up backstories to explain my poor Japanese. Sometimes I had been raised in California, sometimes in England, but always as an only child with deceased parents and few family connections, anywhere. When I came to Japan, Mei said her father would help with changing my name and establishing my cover.
In the spring I completed DAR, and with the last of my savings bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo.
My hypercab pulled into Futaba Station at sunset. Everything—the tracks, the interior of the car, the platform—was bathed in reddish gold. But as I stepped out, my bronze hands clutching the straps of my baggage, I didn’t see Mei. Instead a woman, frowning and wearing white gloves, held up a sign.
I walked up to her, bowed, and said in broken Japanese, “I am Haru. Where is Mei?”
A tear dribbled down her cheek as she lowered the sign. She was young, Mei’s age, but not as tall.
“I am Mei’s sister,” she said and then lunged at me, throwing her arms around my neck while still gripping the sign, which crumpled into my hair. She pressed her face into my shoulder, her tears dampening my skin through my shirt. I dropped my bags, reached up, and tried to peel her away as her hands kept a strong grip on my shoulders.
She was sobbing uncontrollably. “Mei died. Yesterday. I am her sister. Kira. I am sorry. I took her place. Please forgive me.” She spoke in a low voice, in perfect English.
Only as I fell to one knee did I become free of her grasp.
I began crying, staring at the platform’s golden surface, before finally asking Kira what happened. She sat next to me, her knees crossed, her arm around my back, and with jagged words described the accident—hiking alone at Mount Adatara, Mei had fallen from a high boulder.
People were looking at us. As soon as we noticed them, we got up, the questions swirling in my head acting as a sort of bandage for my grief, my desperate need to understand mixing with a depthless sadness that already exhausted me. I recalled the image of Mei among those shells of houses in Futuba’s historic district, how she’d spoken of the spirits there, how she might now be among them. Honestly, it scared me a little.
And now, in Kira’s hotel room, I recalled she had dead-bolted the door.
I once had a bad experience.
She wanted sake and got up and retrieved a bottle and two matching cups. As we drank, disgust diluted my sadness as I kept thinking how she was more beautiful than her dead sister—perhaps because her eyes lacked the artificial sheen of Mei’s.
Still sobbing, I said, “Mei never mentioned you. Neither did Kai.”
“We were estranged.”
She kept her gloves on and, as she raised her sake cup and drank, she gazed at me.
By now, I craved sleep. I pushed myself up from the couch, staggered to the bed, and tumbled in. The blackness of unconsciousness had almost consumed me when I felt Kira’s body pressed against me. My eyes opened; her hand reached over my head and dangled just above my brow. She had taken off her gloves.
A sapphire ring circled her ring finger. I recognized the blue gem instantly.
“When I first met you, I knew I loved you, Blake. Oh, you’ve noticed my ring—it’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”
I was sitting with Elly at a diner on Main Street. The restaurant was run-down and its food cold and tasteless – falling just a few narrow notches nearer to being consumable than non-consumable on an edibility spectrum. The conversation flowing between Elly and I over our pathetic, plated meals wasn’t about anything important. We touched on the weather, the horrible morsels we were putting into our mouths, and the sitcom we had watched together the night before.
It was a normal night in every way. Nondescript. Uneventful. And perfect… absolutely perfect. Perfect because of Elly.
She paused while talking about a scene in the sitcom, her eyes – sepia shaded, like two old, oval photographs – lowering to the cup resting between her hands. When she spoke again, her tone, and the topic of our conversation, had changed: “Do you think people can ever change?” she asked, quietly. “Really change?”
I linked the fingers of my hands together around my cup of tea. It, like everything on our table, was cold. I wondered where Elly’s sudden question had come from. After a moment of silence, I answered: “No.”
Some of the light seemed to drain from Elly’s face, the pulsing sun of her skin fading to a pale moonlike glow. “You really don’t think so?”
“I’ve never been able to change.” My shoulders twitched upward in a brief shrug. “And I’ve tried. So many times, in so many ways.”
“That’s bullshit,” Elly said, the harsh word sounding soft and sweet coming out of her mouth. Elly made even unpleasant words sound mellifluous, somehow. “I’ve always believed that we all have a self at our centers that is the ‘real’ us. And I think life is about discovering that person. A journey to that person. None of us start out as our truest selves… we have to travel there. That’s what change is.”
“Do you think some people have a longer journey than others?”
I let go of my cup and placed my hands flat on the table. “If that’s true, I wonder how far I am on mine.”
“Do you feel at peace with yourself? Do you feel true to yourself?”
I looked at Elly carefully. With her eyes on me, I did – I felt completely at peace, and utterly myself. But, overall? Something churned in my stomach, and my limbs stiffened. In this place, I was content with who I was; was content with everything. But… there was another place, wasn’t there?
“Hey,” Elly said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She leaned across the table and pressed her lips to mine. “That’s the last thing I want to do,” she breathed into my mouth.
Something wasn’t right.
Her eyes opened, encaging mine with their silken sharp grip. Burning in crimson cold fire, her lips moved on my lips; moist flame flickering, licking the darkness. Her fingers wrapped a velvet vice around mine, as her shoeless foot slid up my leg.
Something was coming. Something was changing.
Elly’s hand cupped the side of my face, brushed passed the corner of my mouth, and slid into my hair. It was then that it started. Nightmare began to seep into dream, or perhaps dream began to fade into reality. I felt the soft locks of my dark hair grow brittle and twist into dandruff-speckled curls. Coarse strands wiggled out through the surface of my scalp, curling around Elly’s fingers: coiling tendrils choking the color from her flesh.
Strangely, Elly seemed not to notice. I kissed her ear. Closed my eyes. Prayed for the truth to go away. It refused to do so. Beneath Elly’s warm breath and searching tongue, I sensed my skin beginning to change. Acne sprouted – zit after zit swelling my skin in plump, red mounds of seething yellow discharge.
With her right hand still in my hair, Elly wrapped her left arm around me. Firm flesh immediately faded into slanted bone beneath her embrace. My wide shoulders drooped down, becoming angular ridges. My body began to contract and shrivel like a grape’s atrophy into raisin. Muscles dissolved, ribs pressed up against skin, and veins revealed the intricacies of their blue webs. All that had been skin became skeletal.
I noticed we were standing now, the diner no longer around us. How long had things been like this? I placed my deflated arms around Elly, cradling her against me. She melted against my boney body, a supple, fragrant fusion of skin and cloth and hair. I breathed her in. Elly was everything I had ever wanted. She was all I could ever need. But I knew she was not mine to hold. She never had been. She never would be.
My palms grew wet against her bare back. She felt my hands change, my skin on her skin like drenched, dead fish on the white sands of a tropical island.
Her eyes darted open as she pulled back from me, tearing herself from my thin arms and soggy fingers. Screaming, she found her body being yanked back towards me, her hand ensnared in the tangled thicket of my hair. She tugged at her arm frantically. She put her foot to my stomach and pushed with her leg. My eyes slammed shut, teeth clenching in pain as Elly’s hand found freedom, tearing clumps of arid hair from my head. I fell to the ground and Elly scrambled away from me, her body shaking with frenzied sobs.
I looked up at her with pleading, apologizing eyes. Elly’s head was turned away from me, her eyes opened wide on nothing and her mind attempting to close on everything.
Her sobs. I could hear nothing but her sobs. I needed to say something, if not to make things better, then only to silence her gasping cries. “Please, Elly, I…”
At the sound of her name, Elly’s head snapped towards me like a triggered mousetrap. “What happened to you? What…what happened…” She touched her face tentatively, as if afraid that my acne had crawled from my skin to hers. Finding she hadn’t been infected, that her skin was still her skin – soft, smooth immaculateness – she grew both calmer and deeper in disgust with me. “Your body… my God…”
“I know, Elly, I…”
“Your hair it… latched onto me! Latched onto me!” She began brushing her hand again at the remembrance of the hairs that had clung to it. “What’s wrong with your hair? Your body? Your entire body!”
My head sunk to my knees. I curled my fingers into a fist and rocketed my knuckles against the ground. Pain raced through my hand, but it felt distant, unimportant. I looked up again, eyes fighting back tears. Elly stood at a distance, staring at me. Fear and repulsion were twisting her features.
“I’m sorry, Elly. I’m so, so sorry.”
“What’s happening?” she asked with her voice and demanded with her eyes. “Just tell me what’s happening!”
“You need to leave now,” I whispered. “Goodbye, Elly.”
“Goodbye? Where do you think I’m going?”
Her voice… god, how I would miss her voice. “Back to the cluster of circuits that gave you birth,” I said, tears flowing as my words stumbled out. “Goodbye.”
I didn’t need to look up. I knew that I was now alone. I knew that the entire time I had truly been alone.
I stared up at the ceiling. “A dream,” I told myself, the stench of morning-breath hanging on my words. “I knew it was only a dream again.”
Grey light filtered through the large windows above my bed, casting an anemic glow over sheets, and blankets, and me. I sat up stiffly and swung my feet to the hardwood floor. A profound ‘true self’ conversation stuck inside a wet dream, wedged within a nightmare… some pillow pilgrimage that had been. I struck my fist against the wall behind my bed, again sending splinters of pain racing through my hand. The pain felt more real this time, probably because it was. I was so frustrated that I almost longed for those days when people had dreamt normal dreams.
I looked out the window and a forest of lumbering stone and metal rooted in cracking concrete peered back at me. Dirty snow lined the sides of the street and distant dark clouds whispered that more was to come. Winter in the city, a time when nature fought to beautify Man’s wilderness: To quilt concrete lakes and streams in soft snow, drape cars in white sweaters, and street lights in icy hats.
It was, of course, a fight nature always lost. Like mites in a symbiotic pact with the concrete beast whose broad back they lived upon, animals of Man’s forest would turn snow to slush under boot and wheel; transform pure white to dark gray and bile black. Before the time would come for it to melt, the snow would be blacker, fouler, than the hardened tar it covered.
I stood and made my way to the bathroom, the weight of sleep deadening my initial movements. I flicked the bathroom’s light switch up, and the florescent bulb on the ceiling noisily buzzed to life. Before my eyes stared my face. I sighed, placing my palm flat against the mirror’s cool surface. My reflection also mouthed a sigh, laying its glassy palm against my sallow flesh.
My vision of myself in my dream hadn’t been too far from the truth. A horrendous second skin of red and white mounds sat atop dry, flaky flesh. Not that the layer of pimples was covering anything worth seeing. My face was wan and thin, my skin drawn tightly to bone as if my skull wanted to penetrate its flawed mask. Dandruff sprayed from the curls of my hair as I ran my fingers through it. The white dots speckled my reflection’s face. I closed my eyes; opened them again. I was still there, standing before myself. I removed my hand from the mirror.
Pitiful, hideous bastard, I told my reflection; my reflection told me. If true change was possible, I mused bitterly, I’d have already seized it at any cost. But it wasn’t. I was an ugly wretch who had flunked out of the Military Academy. I was a worthless factory grunt who couldn’t even enjoy my nights like every other man alive could. That’s all I was, and all I’d ever be.
I reached out towards the light switch and clicked it down. My reflection became a shadowy figure, a mere androgynous outline: suggestion of a head flowing into a ghost of a body. No longer me. Just some unknown shade; empty profile. That was better.
Shedding my night clothes, I switched to the fabrics of day: Brown pants (three sizes too large), white T-shirt (its current color merely suggesting the notion of white), button-down shirt with a streak of black on the back and the letters KALVIN HOBBES printed below the collar (Kalvin Hobbes being my name, the black streak being a stain).
Fighting my boots onto my feet, I took another look out the window from my seat on the bed. The world was still out there. Another day of work awaited.
Wind whipped my face as my feet sloshed through mostly-melted snow. All around me, men in brown pants, no-longer-white T-shirts, and letter-branded button-down shirts marched out from the faces of buildings. Black boots filed through blackened snow.
The long, burnt body of a flare cylinder attracted my attention: bright red smudge sticking out of grayish slush. The blot of red seemed alien to the day… this day that had woken up groggy and grumpy while color had slept in, warm and snug in rainbowed pajamas. Continuum of gray – dirty white, ashen gray, coal black – those were the shades which saturated the sky, tinged the buildings, and dyed the slush-soaked earth. With my boot, I kicked a spray of icy sludge over the flare casing as I passed it: quickened pulse pumping in a cadaver’s arm – it didn’t belong on this street, in this city.
Like a massive troop of dancers all dangling from one branching string of choreography, boots suddenly slid to a stop on all sides of me. Necks bolted heads upward to face the sky. We then stood paralyzed like marionettes abandoned, returned to our true state as inanimate, lifeless wood. Breath bottled in lungs, arms locked at sides, legs glued to ground, we dared not make a noise. We stood, we stared, and, above all, we listened.
It began softly, no louder or more discernable than imagined, half-heard words carried on the tongue of a night-time breeze. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere; ethereal breathings from lips unseen. It was a noise floating in that auditory limbo between gasp of air and articulation of word… a sound that reaches the ears but not the mind.
I gritted my teeth as whisper vaulted into scream. Deafening squeals ripped across the sky, sounding too organic to be artificial, too metallic to be natural. I was visited by an image of a robotic pig suffering beneath the knife of slaughter, its fleshy larynx launching cries of pain through a cast-iron snout. Such a piercing sound seemed it should be an impossibility on this day; seemed it should be absorbed by the layered grey of sky, drowned out by the oppressing, omnipresent quiet. It wasn’t. The glass globe which had contained our soundless, colorless world was rippled with cracks. The dark quilt of sky shattered and fragmented fabric rained to the earth. Silence denied its essence and screamed – ran off to some dark corner.
Boots stirred, heads lowered, limbs twitched: our puppeteer had apparently returned. Yet, now, the men around me moved in distinct ways. Some dashed forward desperately, fearing for their lives. Others took brisk, broad steps – not caring enough to run, but not quite suicidal enough to walk. I followed behind them all, going the same pace we all had been before the siren’s call.
No matter how we moved, we were all going the same place: A nearby opening in the earth revealed an escalator now frozen in the stagnancy of common stairs. Boots clanked down the narrow metal steps.
I stepped from the stairs into a concrete tomb behind the other men. Mighty pillars held ceiling from floor, casting towering shadows from the flares some of the men had already lit. A smattering of round spotlights hung from the walls and from some of the pillars, but they were currently turned off. The air was so damp that I felt the cold clinging to my skin like a wet film. Clouds of breath streamed from mouths, ghosting across wavering auras of red light.
I looked around as if this were the first time I’d seen this dreadful place. To one side of the tomb the floor fell away to reveal a lower platform with long-unused rails. The metal beams and wooden planks of the railway snaked away down a dark, partially collapsed tunnel.
We placed our backs against the concrete wall across from the tracks, dropped to the floor, and sunk our heads between our knees. The sound of the siren had died away up above, now replaced by a volley of piercing yelps. The bombs had started to fall.
Tremendous cylinders of metal were being carried along a conveyor belt in front of which stretched a line eighty men long. The men stood in silence, side by side, eyes focused downward, hands forever cycling through a set loop of motions. I was one of these men.
Hands jerked in dreary dance, each pair of five gloved digits locked in a perpetual pattern of motion. Pinch…Push…Turn: those were the steps of my dance; the cycle that bound my fingers, moved my muscles. Our hands were like hamsters caught in a spinning wheel – our digits scrambling non-stop, our efforts only fueling our continued torture.
The conveyor belt continuously advanced the iron cylinders, rolling them past chicken wire bins packed to capacity with metal menagerie. There were endless variations of screws, bolts, and widgets in the bins: Shells of concave, tinted glass; gears with jagged teeth; and sticks capped with clicky trigger buttons.
The bin which I worked out of contained hundreds of transparent needles. My work days and nights were spent inserting shards of glass like these into ports riddling the bodies of the iron cylinders. I had no idea what the function of the glass shards was. But the iron cylinders, they were to become cannons.
“Seems like your limbs are still intact,” a voice rose above the steady screeching of the treadmill and the incessant din of the machinery.
I glanced over at the speaker: a stout, unshaven man whose shirt read IRVINE LINESS.
I nodded. “Still in one piece.”
The voice belonging to the shirt labeled IRVINE continued: “Hell of a downpour this time – getting worse all the time. Whole groups of guys I was with got roasted… cooked like chicken.”
“Same here,” I answered. “I was down in the subway on Pine. Part of the roof caved in – crushed a dozen or so.”
“Fried like fowl and pressed like pancakes,” he said with a laugh which was quickly overtaken by coughing. The coughing was then usurped by a wheezing which was concluded as a wad of muddy saliva was expelled from his mouth onto the concrete floor. “Fowl and pancakes,” he repeated, perhaps being touched by hunger at the thought. Then, more solemnly, he added, “Ah, well… what can you do?”
Nothing, my mind answered. You could do nothing. That was our one certainty in this world – the threat of death was always near. We lived in a world where, when death fell from the sky alongside snow, people thought the two just as natural, just as matter-of-course. Clouds let out moisture – those were the snowflakes. The enemy rained death upon us – those were the bombs.
If there was one thing we could do, it was to make the weapons that we would use to rain hell back on them, I thought as I swiveled my right hand within its metallic cone. The cone was my control console, manipulating a robotic arm positioned above the conveyer belt. The arm was a meshing of stringy cables, laced with plastic veins pumping with oil… it was ugly, and reminded me of my own skeletal arm.
“Nothing like being awake to remind you how much you love the missis,” the man in the shirt marked IRVINE remarked with a dry chuckle, the digits of his robotic hand removing a needle from the bin beside us. “Rain bombs down on us, and suck our hours away in this factory, but when the waking hours fade and I’m with my girl again, nothing else seems to matter.”
I said nothing, watched my second – my metallic – hand slide a shard into place on the cylinder, its rubber-tipped fingers rotating the glass clockwise, clicking it into place.
“Legs that go forever!” IRVINE rhapsodized. “Such legs! Glorious… glorious.” Staring with eyes that seemed to see nothing but the landscapes of his daydreams, the man continued talking in a distant voice. “And that sense of humor – don’t want you thinking I’m shallow, now! – that sense of humor could raise a chuckle from a corpse. Wit to burn. I’ll tell you, she’s quite a creature – an amazing creation.”
Gears creaking, my artificial arm lowered middle and index fingers into a crevice atop the moving cylinder, and turned it around to reveal a new set of ports awaiting to swallow the glass shards.
“Guys like me, and certainly like you,” IRVINE said, throwing me a glance and an apologetic smile, “we’re sure lucky we have our women, eh? Back before the war, specimens like us would have been out of luck. So… how is your little lady these days?”
“Fine? Just fine?”
“Yeah… okay, not bad, no complaints… fine.”
“Well, sorry for prying, but in my experience, ‘fine’ never means ‘fine.’”
I laughed a laugh that carried in it more nervousness and less amusement than I had intended. “No? Well, in your experience, what does ‘fine’ mean?”
“‘Fine’ means, invariably and quite simply, ‘not fine.’ It means that something is wrong… that things could and should be better than they are.”
I fit several more thin pieces of glass into the next cylinder. I thought about saying nothing and letting my conversation with IRVINE die. I didn’t. “You’re right,” I eventually said.
“Okay, then,” he replied, sounding happy that I had finally spoken again, “what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. I’m… not sure.” I moved my hand too quickly, swinging the robotic arm too far left – the crystal hit the side of the cylinder and rained broken bits onto the belt.
“Damn it,” I spat through clenched teeth. A red bulb on my control cone flashed on and a thin voice crackled from a speaker below the light: “Warning… continue with renewed care… this is your warning… Number 699… This is your warning…”
The head above the tag marked IRVINE shot a nervous glance over at me before quickly looking back down at his own console. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this. It’s not important…”
“Yes – it is.” I watched the belt carry the shattered glass away from me, grasped a new piece between iron thumb and iron forefinger. “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with… with her lately.”
Again, he sent an anxious look my way, unsure if it was wise for us to continue this conversation. “What kind of trouble?”
“It’s hard to explain…”
“How long have you had her?”
“About four months.”
IRVINE began tapping his foot beneath his console cone. “Don’t tell me you’re getting tired of her already!”
“No, it’s not that. I really, really like her. She’s wonderful.”
“What is she?”
“She’s a… her name is Elly.”
“Ah, an Elly! Elly… Elly…” IRVINE narrowed his eyes. “I have a damned difficult time remembering all their names, but I think I can picture her.”
“She’s so smart, so beautiful – perfect, really.”
“Too many names to keep track of, that’s the problem!” IRVINE said, plunging his robotic hand back into a bin. “Why bother with different names, anyway? There’s nothing in a name. They should call them all, say, Sallie, and then give each Sallie a different number. Sallie 1, Sallie 2, Sallie 3 – you get the idea. Numbers are easier to remember than names, I’d say.”
A new kind of cylinder started coming down the conveyor belt. I carefully reached my metallic glove into another bin of parts next to the one I had been working from, selecting an opaque rectangular piece. “Something just doesn’t feel right when I’m with her. But… well, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this problem with a girl.”
IRVINE yawned. “So, are you leaving her?”
“I don’t want to. I want it to work. I said goodbye to her before I woke up this morning, like I’d never see her again. But…”
“Some guy I know,” IRVINE interrupted, “I met him in a bomb shelter last week. We got to talking. He was saying how he had struggled with his woman at first, like it sounds you are. But when we talked, he had just proposed! He said he had a Kelly, I think. Or maybe a Lisa. Which is the one with the giant rack?”
“Lisa, I think,” I replied absentmindedly.
“Yeah – Lisa. Damned names. But she is incredible! Hell of a looker. Almost wish I had chosen her for myself!”
IRVINE’s foot was now slapping against the concrete with a plan, pounding out some intricate beat. “Your Elly’s not the easiest on the eyes, but I’ll grant you that there is a certain something about her.”
“I think she’s beautiful. More beautiful than anything in this world.”
“Anything in THIS world, sure. But as for the…”
“I meant more beautiful than anything else – anything and everything else.”
Elly’s image flashed before me, my mind’s eye opening wide, soaking in her visage. Her dirty-blonde hair was drawn back in a tight bun, fully revealing her face, fully displaying her beauty. Her thin lips were pressed tight under smiling eyes, her expression both playful and thoughtful, reckless and serene. “I think I love her.”
“You love her? Powerful word, that. You can’t leave her, then! You’ve got to do something about your problems – you absolutely must!”
“I know I do.” I fit another rectangular bit into place. “I will.”
Outside, the sky was darker than it had been that morning: livid with masses of thick clouds which conspired to deaden the sun and blanket the city in an ever-shifting ethereal ceiling. The snow was soggy and stuck to the bottom of my boots. I shoved my hands into my pants’ pockets to shield them from the cold. The distance I had to go was short, but so was my time. I walked quickly, crossing an overpass and then descending a flight of cement stairs jutting from the face of a hill.
The stairs led to the torn pavement of a highway, a blast-riddled stretch of blacktop which had long seen its final car. I walked down the center of one of its lanes. The worn yellow paint scrawled on the roadway’s surface was visible in those areas where patches of snow had melted. On both sides of the highway, ghosts of buildings began materializing, their crumbling facades representing what was once the business district. Husks of twisted steel and shattered brick, the structures hung like wilted flowers over the roadway. My feet sunk into the diseased skin shed by their leprosy – bricks, mortar, rotted wood, slabs of concrete, knives of glass, webs of corroded piping, and shattered ceramic.
I turned onto a street lined with decimated houses and the scorched trunks of trees. A short way down the street, one house still stood – a two-storied colonial, its weathered wood mottled in chips of white paint. A sign planted in the barren earth of its front yard read: RELATIONSHIP-SIMULATION DEALERSHIP OF TRIBACAN, and in smaller letters: The New Name in Love.
A chime sounded as I swung the door open and entered a room whose perimeter was lined in faded-green plastic chairs. Dirt-stained white tile groaned beneath the weight of my steps as I headed for the reception desk.
A man – or, rather, the outline of a man – sat behind a closed pane of darkly tinted glass which rose from a wooden booth. The silhouette of his head turned to face me as I walked up to him, but he left the glass window closed in front of him, simply staring at me with shadow-eyes within a shadow-face.
I stood directly in front of the glass and ventured a ‘hello.’ The shadow hung frozen, as if imprinted upon the glass. “Hello,” I repeated, louder this time, “I’d like to see one of your doctors.”
The shadow-mouth moved, jostling shadow-jaw up and down. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No, I don’t.”
The pane of glass sighed. “I’ll have to check to see if we have anyone available.”
Rising, the entire shadow shifted, floating away from me, leaving the pane of glass just a pane of glass – nothing viewable beyond its tinted transparency, and no sounds slipping from its thin face.
I sat down on one of the plastic chairs. To my side stood a small table stacked with papers bearing bold printing. The glass had stopped talking, the shadow had disappeared, and there was nothing left to do except wait, so I reached over and took one of the papers.
It was an advertisement for several new products by GOVENT, the entertainment branch of the Government. ‘Digital Doggies’ and ‘Cyber Kitties’ – the pets that leave no mess – headlined the colorful publication, perfervid prose gushing about the artificial animals.
I returned the paper to the stack, unimpressed. I had zero interest in caring for another being, messes or no messes. And I had already heard about all the other offerings the ad touted.
A tapping noise came from the glass booth. I saw that the shadow had returned and walked over. “Someone will see you,” the glass informed me. “Go into the back.”
I passed the booth, the shadow’s head moving to follow me as I did, and entered a long hallway. Blazing lights hung on the ceiling, their astringent glow dousing the chipped walls and white floor tile in sharp luminescence. There were six doors on either side of the hall, none of them labeled, all of them closed. I walked the length of the hall once, then walked back down it again. I was about to go ask the shadow where it was I was supposed to go when a hand clapped down on my shoulder.
I turned around. Atop a white smock glazed in the hall’s blinding white light sat a puffy face. The face crept into a smile, wrinkles writhing at the effort, freckles undulating on folds of flesh. “This room should suffice,” the man said, removing his hand from my shoulder to gesture to the door closest to us.
I nodded. The man opened the door for me. As I walked passed him, I noticed that printed in black, stringy letters upon his smock were the following letters: DR. DRANZONE.
“Have a seat on the table,” the man said as the door shut behind him. He turned away from me and began rummaging through instruments scattered on a metallic cart. “ScopioScope, ScopioScope…,” he muttered, finally plucking a small wrench-like device from the table and wiping it on a rag.
“Now, then, let’s take a little peek, shall we?” he said, his words coated in a bored inevitability which let me know that they stumbled from his mouth at the commencement of every examination he performed. He threw the rag to the floor. “You’ll be spending quality time with your little lady again in no time flat, friend,” he intoned. Again, supreme disinterest stuck to his words like dried-up maple syrup. He forced his bloated lips upward into another labored smile. It, too, stuck of the same syrup.
His job was no different than mine, I realized. Pattern of motions. Mine were Pinch-Push-Turn, and his: Rummage-Little Peek-No time flat-Smile. Each of us forever at our place on the assembly line of life. And for what? What were we building? What had our hands constructed when our assembly lines – whatever their particulars – stopped moving for good?
“Worthless crap,” the mouth belonging to the shirt marked Dr. DRANZONE said. He held up the device that I assumed – from his earlier mutterings – was a ScopioScope. “The tools they expect us to work with at this place! Crap!” He shook his head in disgust, and then shook it some more. He got so involved in rattling his head from side to side that it seemed that he had forgotten what had spurred the head-shaking in the first place.
“Crap,” he said, remembering. “Sure, spend ten bazillion dollars writing software for new fillies, but force us to use fossils to tend to them.” He sighed. The first apparently felt so appropriate to the moment that he sighed again. “Ah, well, what can you do?”
The swaying fabric of the doctor’s gargantuan smock rustled noisily as he lumbered towards the table on which I was seated. The smock hung down to his ankles, and his socks didn’t quite travel up to meet the smock, leaving hairy stubs of legs exposed.
He plopped onto a stool and took a moment to take me in with dark eyes poised over the frames of even darker lenses. The frames slid further down his nose as he continued to look me over.
“I’ve been seeing more people than a calculator-less individual could count these days,” he informed me, cranking a lever on the stool’s side which rose the seat higher and higher in jerking spurts. “My patients – by and large – are happy with what they’ve got. But not completely. No, never completely. They see slightly greener grass and expect me to be the one to get them to the other side.” He stopped turning the lever – the stool’s seat was now level with the table.
“Lie down,” he ordered. “No, further back on the table – that’s fine. I get these picky sons-a-bitches in here, think I’m a hair-dresser or a beautician, want me to spruce their woman up for them. They want me to sprinkle some spice onto their love life. Turn your head away from me and place your chin down… that’s good.”
I pressed the side of my face against the cold body of the examination table as the doctor’s palm cupped the back of my neck. Fingers roved roughly over my skin. There was a small port on the side of my neck, right below my right ear. Inserted into the port was the software. I assumed that the doctor was now examining the status of my port, and would then proceed to remove the software from within its walls – from within my neck.
“They ask for endless adjustments – ‘improvements,’” the doctor continued. “They simply MUST have them taller. They can’t go on living unless she’s feistier in the sack; more understanding to their needs; less demanding; has longer legs, or bigger boobs. A damned digital plastic surgeon! Is that what they think I am? You’re going to feel a pinch, a stinging sensation. There, it’s over. Humans! We’re selfish, needy, trivial, finicky creatures.” He sighed again. “Okay, there’s going to be a brief drilling sound. There… your program is out. Sit up.”
Between his thumb and index finger he held a transparent crystal, its interior teeming with tiny chips laced with metallic specks. He was holding my software – he was holding Elly.
“So, then – what is it going to take to please you, hmmm?” he asked me, his rheumy eyes peering at me again over the rims of his glasses.
How could that be her? Elly, grasped between two bloated fingers! Elly, a construct of plastic, metal, and microchip! I had never seen Elly like this… not even during her initial installation. I had seen other Relationship-Simulation women in this form, and had been shocked by those sights, then. But to see her like this, Elly – my Elly – my intellect played dumb and hid beneath disbelief. This couldn’t be Elly!
A slight turn of the doctor’s head flicked a fluorescent glow across his lenses. “Yes, it is her,” he said in that same for-Christ’s-sake-don’t-make-me-go-through-this-yet-again voice. “You know it is. You know how all this works. GOVENT only spent decades creating their Relationship-Simulation technology. And then the past five years cramming this so-called L.U.S.T. program down our throats.” The doctor snorted. “This miracle of modern science taps into the electric impulses of your brain, and delivers romance straight to your neurons, while you sleep,” he said in a strange voice that was apparently an attempt at mocking the advertisements that constantly ran for L.U.S.T. on TV. He shook his head. “I realize it’s a jolt to see the flesh and blood bed-buddy you know so well like this,” he said in his normal voice, holding up the crystalline circuitry. “But there it is. Reality.”
He stopped talking and there was silence. Mostly silence, anyhow. An air filtration system hummed softly through the rusty ducts winding over my head. I could hear Elly’s voice, deep and breathy, rising and falling within the flow of the whispering wind.
Elly’s voice in the air vent’s howling! I cornered the thought in my mind and ridiculed its ridiculousness. But, then – how less real was a thought of Elly conjured by the coursing of air then it was by the firing of circuits looped in that tiny crystal that hung before my eyes? No. Elly was real – real to me. What she made me feel was real, so she was real.
“So, what infinitesimal tweak are you here to have done to your artificial woman? Change her eye color? Give her a sixth toe? What?”
I gritted my teeth. The doctor’s tone – the way he was talking about Elly – was making me bristle. “Nothing,” I said. “No… tweaks. I like her just the way she is. But I’ve been experiencing a technical glitch with my program. I’m here to get that fixed.”
“Oh,” he said, using his free thumb to push his glasses up his bumpy nose. For the first time, he looked at me not over the tops of his glasses, but directly through the thick lenses of his frames, as if finally willing to see me as more than a distorted, blurry mass. “So… you’re not here for a simple mod? Well, then, tell me what’s been happening.”
“My program has been crashing – nearly every night.”
“Really?” The doctor’s voice had altered, now free of the sticky malaise that had clung to his earlier utterances. He was charting new conversational ground, here. This was beyond greeting, beyond amiable artifice, beyond instruction. This was a stall in his assembly line. This was something new. Something about what I was saying had excited him. “Are the crashes causing you to wake up, or do you fade into normal sleep?”
“I wake up. I always wake up.”
“Alright, alright,” he said, tapping his ScopioScope up and down on his leg with one hand, and still holding Elly’s software with the other. “And, after you wake up, does the system re-boot once you fall asleep again?”
“Yes. But if it crashes once, it will, without fail, crash every single time that night. I’ve been waking up three, four times a night on average.”
The doctor blinked rapidly. “Interesting! Let me peek at your file, eh?” He reached over and snatched a manila folder from the table of instruments at his side. Unlooping the red string which bound half to half, he flipped the folder open. A series of ‘hmmms’ dribbled from his mouth as his eyes moved over the pages within. “Let me see… you have an Elly installed, correct?” he asked, briefly looking up at me from the file.
“You’ve had her for four months, now?”
“And what did you have installed prior to your Elly?” He asked as he flipped through my file, seeking his answer on paper before it could be given to him via sound.
Sound proved faster than sight. “Rebecca,” I answered. He continued to look through my file to find the answer I had already given him. He found the page and nodded, content now that the information had been verified.
“And how long did you have the Rebecca program installed?” he asked, even though his inflection betrayed that he was already staring down at his question’s answer.
“Only two months,” I said. “I never felt… comfortable with her. She made me uneasy, anxious. She was too outgoing, maybe. Towards the end of the two months, I began to experience system crashes.”
He looked up at me again. “The same type of crashes you’re dealing with now?”
“Yes. The same.”
“And before Rebecca, what other programs did you use?” The doctor’s voice was high-pitched now, his words coming rapidly.
Squirming on the cold metal slab of the table, I began reaching back into unpleasant memory banks, rummaging through dusty filing cabinets, the moth-eaten tatters of mental minutiae. I then starting reciting names.
“Sarah, Allison, Alex, Tracy…,” I spoke slowly, one name sparking remembrance of the next, stumbling along a path of linked knowledge like a schoolchild first wrestling with the slippery links of the alphabet’s chain. “Gabriel, Trisha…”
“Lanel, Heather,” the man’s voice took command of the recital, spewing names with alacrity, “Dana, Rachael, Crystal, Sasha – quite a list you’ve amassed. Interesting! And most of these programs you had for less than four months. You did have the five-year dating program installed when you were seventeen, did you not?”
“Then you do realize that that program, that period, is when you are supposed to ‘test the waters,’ don’t you? All these other girls that you’ve had installed and then promptly cast aside were supposed to have been life mates – or healthy long-term relationships at the very least.”
“I understand. I wanted to settle down with the first girl I had installed after I finished the dating program. But it never felt right; I never felt comfortable. Reality always crept into the fantasy. It’s happened with every program I’ve had – sooner or later, they all begin to crash. I had no choice but to try different programs. Elly’s… different, though. I feel utterly connected to her like with no one before… but, the crashes are still happening.”
“Every single one has crashed…” The doctor lifted Elly’s software crystal to his face, blinking at it. “I told you that everyone and their brother comes in here to modify their post-dating program girl. But it’s rare for them to change to different girls, swapping one out for another. The programmers of these things have quite the knack for crafting creatures who are difficult to part with, you understand.” The doctor set Elly’s software down on his lap and scratched his nose. “I’ve never seen anyone who has had as many post-dating program women installed as you have. Not even close. But… you said you don’t want to switch programs again?”
“No. Elly – my… program… I want to keep my current program, if there’s any chance of getting it fixed.” I eyed my software nervously as it hung between the dip in the doctor’s smock, over the gap between his two parted legs.
He arched his bushy black eyebrows. “Most interesting,” he said. “You truly aren’t just playing the field like a maniac, my boy. I can see that now.” He stretched his arms over his head and my Elly software slid perilously close to the edge of his lap. “Well, with the history of problems you’ve had with so many different programs, I’d hazard a guess that the problem to be fixed might not lie with them, but with you.”
“What happens right before your program crashes?”
I looked down at my white, boney fingers. “I… I start to realize I’m not like my dream-self. I start to see my real self, and so does Elly. She never remembers the… episodes where I become myself, when I see her next. She’ll recall everything else about our times together, though.”
“Quite illuminating, these details.” The doctor made a clucking sound with his tongue. He grabbed my software from his lap and wrapped his fingers around it. “Crashes in these programs are incredibly uncommon. For you to experience them with every variation of software you try, why, it makes you very unique, boy.”
“Yes. And the world always has need for unique things. Now, more than ever.”
“I don’t understand…”
The doctor jumped up from his stool. “Understand, this – I’ve arrived at my diagnosis. You, my friend, have no self-confidence! Your brain is unable to fully give into the fantasy of being with Elly because you don’t believe you deserve her.”
“Well… I don’t! Look at me, and then think of what she’s like. She’s flawless! She’s…”
“A program!” the doctor yelled. “A program meant to serve you! A mere prancing digital diversion! Of course you deserve her! She was made for you.”
“No! She’s more than that!”
The doctor shook his head. “No. She’s less than you think she is, and you’re more than you believe you are. Get that sorted out in your head, and your nights will start going very differently.” He peered over the tops of his glasses. “Can you do that?”
“Yep.” The doctor smiled. “Change your perception of yourself, and of your program.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, lie down again. I’m going to re-insert your software crystal. And make a small improvement that may help you. Remember – self-confidence in both the waking world, and in the ersatz realm of your evenings, will take you far. Realize that you’re more than you think, and that you deserve what you have. Do this, and you’ll have quite the amazing night tonight. Trust me.”
I stared at my bed. Draped in a ratty plaid comforter, my bed was my portal. It was our meeting place. It was sleep. It was dreams. It was Elly.
I turned away from the bed and headed across the room. I sat at the chair by my table and kicked my boots off. They clumped as they hit the wooden floor, splattering moisture and mud. I threw my shirt on the ground by the boots, on the mud. The letters must have fallen facing the floor. There was no KALVIN HOBBES visible on the garment – just wrinkles branching across worn fabric that wasn’t white, but once was. It struck me as strange to see my shirt lying there so flat and thin and lifeless: so shapeless. It somehow seemed like it should still have the shape of a torso lifting out the front, filling in the sleeves… making crumpled fabric a shirt again. It was almost like seeing Elly as a circuit-packed crystal instead of what she became in my dreams.
My gaze drifted from the shirt turned crumpled cloth, up my wall, and onto the crawling arms of my clock. The large arm was locked firmly on Twelve; the medium arm hung between Nine and Ten; the smallest arm couldn’t decide which number to commit to. It was almost time for the scheduled sleep period.
I stood again. Walking towards the windows, I heard mutters of broken words oozing through the paper-thin wall from the next apartment over. My neighbor must have started his sleep period ahead of time – everyone babbled incessantly in their sleep. You would be enchanting your woman with your charm in the dream world, making her weak in the knees with your wit and intellect, while in the physical world your saliva-splattered mouth would be croaking out gibberish. ‘The dazzling light of your beauty pales the luminescence of the goddesses themselves,’ you could say while logged into your program, while in reality nothing but a string of slobbery ‘Ugnatifnatugs’ would be lurching from your mouth.
I looked outside, but met only my face. There were no buildings, no streets, and no city – there was only me. The cold glow of my apartment’s overhead lights cast the windows as sheets of solid, reflective black. I stared at myself for many minutes, and then sat on my bed.
Could I change? Would tonight with Elly be different? Lying down, I figured it was time to find out.
I was sitting on the plush, red couch. It was opulent, as was everything surrounding it: gossamer curtains catching moonlight, an oak dining room table with a dark cherry finish and chairs with carved seashell motifs on their backs, a glass coffee table, and an antique multi-colored chest dotted with drawers, each with a boldly hued door looking ready to transport whomever opened it into another reality.
Elly had picked out everything around me.
The stately grandfather clock by the loveseat tolled – it was ten o’clock. Elly walked in the front door as if summoned by the chiming. My surroundings – seeming so elegant moments ago – were suddenly put to shame as Elly strolled through them. She wore a breathtaking black strapless dress that hugged her figure like an enthusiastic long-lost relative, tightly wrapping itself around her in an intense embrace. Her neck, her arms, and her lower legs emerged from the silky fabric like fire leaping from the dark of night. Her skin was radiant and enchanting.
I was off the couch and in her arms in moments. I breathed in the scent of her hair, pulling her slender frame against me. We kissed and her lips tasted both new – like she was an exotic creature I had just met – and familiar – warm and comfortable and reassuring, as only well-known things can be.
“Elly,” I whispered into her mouth as I pulled back from our kiss. “I missed you.”
“And I you.”
“Never leave me again.”
“I promise,” she said. “Never.”
We stood holding each other for long minutes before Elly finally stepped back. A smile touched her lips, lit her face. “Are you ready to go to the play? The curtain rises in forty minutes.”
“Almost,” I said. “Just give me a moment.”
I went into the bathroom and stood before the oval mirror over the porcelain vessel-style sink. A sublime grey, double-breasted suit jacket swept over my broad shoulders, eventually meeting my flat-front pants. I was straightening the white cuff of my button-down shirt when a fleck of red on my right cheek caught my attention. I angled my head to get a better look at my reflection – was that a pimple? I stared at the spot of skin where I thought I had noticed something, but now didn’t see a thing. Of course it couldn’t be a pimple, I realized. I had never had a dot of acne my entire life.
I ran a hand through my soft, shiny hair and flashed myself a smile – I was ready.
Returning to the den, I found Elly with her back facing me. The triangle of flesh visible on her back where her dress cut away drew me like a magnet. I waltzed over and placed my hand below her neck, against her warm skin.
“All set,” I said.
Elly remained motionless. Silent.
I removed my hand from her back. “Elly?”
She turned around, quickly, spinning wildly on her high heels. Her face – something was wrong. Her eyes were filled with fear.
“Elly?” I grabbed her arms. “What is it? What happened?”
“The old Pine Avenue subway,” she blurted out, her voice sounding unlike her own.
“What?” I searched her eyes, finding an alien dullness. My grip on her arms tightened. “Elly, what are you talking about?”
“The Pine Avenue subway,” she repeated, louder. “Go there! Now!”
“Why?” My panic was growing. “What’s there?”
“We need to go there? What’s there?”
Elly stumbled away from me. “No – not us. You! Go now!”
Elly clenched her fists. “Wake up and go! Go now!”
“I… wake up?” My chest ached, feeling like it was caving in, and I sucked in rushed, shallow breaths. “What the hell are you talking about? I am awake! Why are you talking like this?”
Elly stormed forward and stuck her face inches from mine. “This is not real!” she spat. “Wake up! Just like you have every night leading up to now! You know this is fake. That’s why I’m here. Get back to what is real. Now!”
“Not… real?” I looked down at my hands. Suddenly, my skin grew paler, and my bones more pronounced. I felt my body shrinking – growing shorter and thinner. My suit soon hung from me in flaps of overextended fabric. “Elly!” I screamed. “What’s happening to me?”
Elly looked at me sternly. “Meet me at the Pine Avenue subway,” was all she said.
Our apartment twisted, its colors bending and bleeding. Scratched floors and bare walls soon replaced it. I sat up in my small, sweat-stained bed. I had woken up.
I walked down the stationary metal steps of the broken escalator, my balance shaky. My heart was beating far too quickly, and my hands were sweating even more profusely than they usually did.
What had happened when I was with Elly? It hadn’t been my own mind realizing the fantasy of the dream this time. Something had invaded that fantasy and pulled me back into reality – something had spoken to me, using Elly as a mouthpiece.
I reached the bottom of the escalator. A few spotlights high up on concrete walls and on pillars sporadically and inadequately lit the cavernous space. The southwest corner of the ceiling was a yawn of exposed pipes and the space beneath it was covered in rubble – results of the cave-in during the bombing this morning. I still couldn’t believe I was back here, in this place.
For an hour after waking, I had stayed in my apartment, deciding whether to come to the subway. Concerns for my safety had battled against my intense curiosity. In the end, my curiosity had won. What, I had decided, did I have to lose?
I looked around. There was no one there. The subway looked the same as it had when I had left it this morning – only minus the hundred other factory workers who had accompanied me then (both those who had walked out with me after the bombing had finally concluded, and those who had stayed behind on account of being dead). I paced back and forth between two pillars, under a ceiling cloaked in shadows. Had I imagined the whole thing? Had something turned my Elly program truly defective?
“Here!” snapped a voice.
I jumped at the sound.
“Down here!” it yelled again.
I walked over to where the concrete platform stopped and the recessed railway began. I didn’t see anything at first, and my eyes followed the path of the tracks. Right as the rusted rails were claimed completely by darkness, I saw a slash of light appear and then vanish. “I’m here!” said the voice, sounding like it was near the spot where the light had flared.
Again, curiosity and fear fought inside me. Again, curiosity reigned supreme. I jumped down onto the railway. The light flashed on again – only for a second – and I saw a blink of an ashen face, but little else. I stumbled along the tracks towards the area of the darkness that I knew held something more.
I clanked along the rails until I became part of the blanketing blackness. I could no longer see anything in front of me. Even the spotlit platform of the subway platform I had left behind was now nothing more than a faint illuminated blur. Then, between one clunk of my boots onto unseen rail and the next, another sound emerged. A cough – close by. I froze and the light came on again, staying on this time.
Someone stood mere feet from me in the center of the tracks – a woman, the remaining darkness flowing around her like an immense cape. The beam of her flashlight was pointed to my right, reflecting off the wall and creating a pool of weak illumination around us. The light was enough for me to see the woman by. She looked to be around my age and had short hair, a plain face, and uneasy eyes. Her skin was freckled and her body pudgy. She was the first real woman I had seen in five years.
“Anabelle,” the woman said, and she thrust out the hand not holding the flashlight.
I reached out with my sweaty hand and took hers. It was calloused, her fingers small, and her nails jagged. “I’m Kalvin,” I said.
I let go of Anabelle’s hand. The strength of my curiosity faltered as I was struck with a frisson of fear. “How?” I said. “How do you know me? It… it was you, wasn’t it? You were the one talking to me through Elly?”
“Yes. That was me. Dranzone told us about you.”
“Dranzone?” I repeated, puzzled. Then I remembered the nametag worn by the doctor from the Relationship-Simulation Dealership… ‘DR. DRANZONE.’ “The doctor I saw earlier? What does he have to do with anything?”
“He’s a member of the Resistance,” Anabelle said, her eyes seeming to flicker with the word, “as am I.”
Anabelle crossed her arms, causing the flashlight beam to streak across my face before slapping against the opposite wall. “Yes.” Her expression tightened. “Against the Government.”
“But why am I here? What do I have to do with any of this?”
“We want you to join us, Kalvin,” Anabelle said. Her arms dropped – again repositioning the pool of light – and her stance softened. “We need your help.”
Anabelle’s eyes bore into me. She was sizing me up; judging me. I didn’t like the look. “The lure of the Relationship-Simulator doesn’t have its hooks fully into you,” she said. “Dr. Dranzone is always looking for people like you – those who aren’t completely swayed by the fantasy of the Government’s program; those who experience continued issues with the software. He believes your kind make the best Resistance members. We all do. You are more awake than most.”
“How many of you are there?”
“Enough,” she said, tilting her head to its side. “Hundreds.”
“I still don’t understand, though – how did you talk to me in my dream?”
A smile sprung to Anabelle’s face. “I am sorry about the intrusion. When you visited him, Dr. Dranzone added a special cap that sits over your L.U.S.T. program crystal.”
“What?” My hand shot to the cold metal of the port in my neck. I remembered the doctor saying he had made a small improvement for me…
“The Government has his office bugged,” Anabelle continued, “so the safest way for him to contact those he thinks will make strong Resistance members is through such caps. It’s a receiver that allows someone with the corresponding transmitter to speak directly to you during your nightly simulation.”
I felt a sinking feeling that I couldn’t explain, like every organ in my body had become untethered, plummeting down through blood and past bone towards my feet. Around me, the darkness beyond the beam of light seemed to grow even darker. It began to drip with an intrusive coldness.
The light itself, however, was even worse than that which it had cast away. It started to appear as bright as the fluorescent lights I found wherever I went – my apartment, the factory, the doctor’s office. It was too abrasive, too artificial, too penetrating. And this Anabelle – she started to appear the same. This was the first real woman I had seen in half a decade, but she was so less genuine than Elly. I took a step further into shadows, away from her light.
“But, you and the doctor and people like you,” I said, “why are you resisting the Government?”
Anabelle’s jaw dropped. “You honestly have to ask that?”
I said nothing. I took another step back.
“I’m sorry.” Anabelle shook her head. “I forget that few know what I and the other Resistance members know.” She walked forward, closing the gap I had placed between us, and lowered her dry, scratchy hands onto mine. “Kalvin, the Government is evil. It exists only to protect those already in power, and to oppress all others. The war that’s been raging for decades? The war that consumes all our lives? Those in power keep it going for their own benefit. The leaders of the ruling political party gain financially from the ongoing conflict. They have no desire to see it end.”
My hands trembled beneath Anabelle’s. “How? How could that be possible?”
“It’s easier in many ways for those in power to rule during times of war, you see. Periods of peace bring with them all manner of prickly problems that those who seek ultimate power don’t want to deal with. During war, a populace looks to its ruling class to deliver them one thing: continued survival, at any cost. But while peace reigns, a peoples’ desires grow wide and deep, and demands for survival are joined by hunger for freedom and thirst for prosperity. In war, the enemy of those in power is some external force. In peace, the enemy of those in power becomes their own people. Better the threat to their complete control come from a distance than from right beneath their own feet, those currently ruling us believe.”
“And President Tanner is behind all of this?”
Anabelle smiled at me sadly. “President Tanner is a puppet, Kalvin. He has no real power. Our true ruling party lives in a glorious city behind the West Wall – a city that none of us have ever seen, and aren’t meant to know exists. Everything they’ve told us – through President Tanner – is a lie. They’ve always said that a rampant, incurable disease causes ninety-five percent of babies to be born male. This is not true. A roughly equal number of males and females are born. But the ruling party whisks the females away. They let them grow up, and then force those they deem unattractive into roles as maids and midwives. And those they do find attractive they force into an entirely different kind of servitude. As far as males are concerned, the Government occupies them with the war – making them either soldiers, or factory workers. They expect you to give your lives to them, and in return they give you only dilapidated living quarters, meager amounts of food, and artificial girlfriends.”
Artificial girlfriend… I opened my mouth in knee-jerk defense of Elly, but then closed it. I pulled my hands away from Anabelle’s, and stared at the shadowy concrete floor. These things she was speaking of were horrific – the Government keeping women as slaves? Those in power eating up the lives of common men like me with a war that didn’t even need to continue?
The shadows kept getting darker, and the flashlight beam brighter. I looked at Anabelle. I could see the conviction in her face. She believed in what she was doing. And, it seemed, she believed in me. “What is it?” I said softly. “What is it that you and the Resistance want me to do?”
I stomped through the filthy snow, an army of men around me. It felt warm in my hand, even though I knew it wasn’t really. It also felt heavy there, covered by my fingers, although, in truth, it weighed only ounces. I wondered at the destructive power they were now able to fit into such a minuscule device.
I shot a few furtive glances around me, and then uncurled my fingers. It stared back at me with its small digital counter at the center of its black body. Anabelle had given it to me. She had called it a test of both my loyalty and efficacy.
It was a bomb.
My fingers quickly clenched closed again, concealing the weapon.
Earlier, after leaving Anabelle, I had headed back to my apartment. It had been shortly after midnight when I had arrived home. I had been eager to return to Elly, to truly test if I’d be able to stay with her the remainder of the night without reality breaking through into the fantasy. But, with everything that had happened, I had been unable to sleep.
I had laid in my bed, eyes wide and limbs jittering, staring across my room at the bomb on my kitchen table. It made no sound, and yet blared like the world’s loudest alarm clock in my head. It looked nondescript, but wouldn’t release my eyes, or let my attention wander, for even a moment. Could I really do it, I kept asking myself? Deploy the bomb at my factory? Was reality even more horrible than I had already known? As horrible as Anabelle claimed? And, even if it was, would working with the Resistance and setting off the bomb really change anything?
I had gotten up from bed and walked to the table. I peered down at the bomb. Three zeroes blinked on its display. They had been flashing like that since Anabelle had handed the device over. I touched a tentative finger to its surface. Whatever happened next, I knew, change had finally found me.
I slammed into something.
“Hey!” a worker in front of me yelled. He swung around. His shirt read ‘KENNY SMITH.’ “Watch where you’re walking, buddy!”
My eyes shot down to my hand – the bomb was still there. I hadn’t dropped it. I glanced up at the worker. “Sorry,” I muttered.
He grumbled something and turned back around. We resumed moving with the throng around us, everyone stomping forward as if asleep, their legs moving only because of some chemical-electric firings in the deepest corners of the most primitive parts of their brains. The rest of their minds were shut off, I knew. Still reliving the events of the night. Still with their women.
The bomb seemed to grow even warmer and heavier in my hand. I had been tasked with waking them up, I realized. With waking myself up, too…
The blast came without warning – thundering and tearing. I had heard countless bombs over the course of my life, but never had one been this loud; this big; this close. My eyes bolted to my hand, my first thought being that my bomb had somehow exploded. But the device remained unchanged in my palm – black body with blinking zeroes on its display.
Screams sounded from behind me and I turned, seeing where the bomb had actually hit. A crater had been blown into the marching mass I was a part of – a depression of bodies strewn across the ground, bloody, bellowing, missing limbs and eyes, fingers and ears. Those still standing moved forward again. Once again, the Pine Avenue subway was the closest place that could afford us some protection from the attack. The men around me headed towards it. Like yesterday, they moved at wildly different paces. This time, however, I was among the runners.
Another bomb fell, falling from the sky like a piece of the universe that had popped loose and plummeted – a decorative star or asteroid that God hadn’t attached firmly enough to the black fabric of space. It struck to my left, shattering pavement and spraying flesh and blood through the air like smashed watermelon pieces.
We reached the broken escalator and stomped down. We lit flares that spit red sparks. We placed our backs against the wall. We dropped to the floor. We sunk our heads between our knees.
I peeked up and looked towards the tracks, thinking of my meeting with Anabelle, and thinking of my own bomb, pressed against my sweaty palm.
The siren warning of the bombs that had been falling for minutes already finally sounded. Its screeching was somehow an even worse noise than that made by the bombs themselves.
The conveyor belt trundled along before me, pulling cylinders. The man with the IRVINE LINESS nametag stood next to me again. It was rare for two of us workers to be positioned beside each other multiple days in a row.
My hand was in my control cone. I pinched. I pushed. I turned.
The bomb was in my pants’ pocket. It felt warm there, too; heavy. I tried to focus on my cone, my metal hand, my needles. Anabelle had told me to detonate the bomb during my fifteen-minute lunch break at Noon. It was still only 11:45. My only task now was to not make another mistake like yesterday; to not draw attention to myself.
“How was Elly last night?” IRVINE asked, turning to glance at me. “Things go any better? You two able to get busy?”
I again thought about ignoring him. I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to talk about anything. Yet, again, I found myself opening my mouth. “No,” I said. “I… something went wrong again. I woke up.”
IRVINE frowned. “Sorry to hear that. Did you try again after waking up?”
“No. I couldn’t fall back asleep. And I didn’t want to take my sleeping pills. I… well, I wanted to be alert for today.”
“Yeah, those sleeping pills knock me off my ass for at least twelve hours. I still take them, though, if I can’t get to sleep otherwise. Being groggy for half a day is worth it to be able to see my Betsy.”
I nodded without saying anything.
IRVINE threw me another glance. “How many girls have you gone through since your dating program period, anyway?”
I plucked a triangular piece from the bin with my metal fingers. “A lot.”
“Hmmm. Well, I’m not going to claim that jumping from one digital dolly to the next doesn’t have its perks – but, truly, nothing compares to the beauty of a long-term union. Why, me and my program wed over eight years ago, now.” Dreamily, he looked up at the ceiling, staring into the harsh lights. “The day of my wedding… hell, that was the single best night of sleep I ever had.”
“Yeah. I’d like that for me and Elly someday. I hope it works out.”
“Well, why wouldn’t it?”
“Reality,” I said. The answer came automatically, but I realized that it was true. My own confidence levels were keeping Elly and I apart, like the doctor had said. But now there was an even bigger obstacle – the bomb hidden in my pocket, and all that went with it.
“Reality,” IRVINE spit out, like he was uttering a curse word. He looked around with distaste. “Who’s to say this is reality and the world where we each spend time with our true love is fake? I say ‘reality’ is whatever makes us happy. I say we should put greater stock into the world that builds us up and grants our dreams than into the one that tears us down and delivers only misery.”
A bell sounded.
“Lunch time!” IRVINE smiled. “Find me in the cafeteria, yeah?”
I pulled my hand out of the cone and shut my metal arm down. “Yeah,” I said distractedly. “Maybe.”
I had never been in this hallway before. You could see it from the factory floor, as it was raised high above it, and visible through tall glass panes. It was where my boss had his office, and it was much nicer than the rest of the factory, decorated with potted plants and pictures. There was even a water cooler. The water inside the clear container looked much cleaner than the stuff that spewed from the faucets down in the factory and in my apartment. A sign over it read: ‘For use by management only.’
Near the end of the hall I found the door I was looking for – the one with my boss’s name emblazoned on the glass window: ‘HAROLD DENSON’
RESIDENT EVIL 7 biohazard_20170207010326
This is where Anabelle had instructed me to place and detonate the bomb. I had never even met my boss. He never came out of his office. I wondered what he was like. Was he working with the Government and aware of all the atrocities they were perpetrating? Did he deserve to die?
It wasn’t for me to decide. Anabelle and the Resistance knew more about the truth of what was going on than I did. I had to follow their orders. Not stopping, I walked past HAROLD’S door, dropping the bomb to the floor without looking back. Anabelle had told me to do it this way, in case there were hidden cameras. I hurried down the hall to steps leading back to the factory floor.
There were still five minutes of the lunch break left, so the floor was empty – nothing but a crisscross of stationary conveyor belts, waiting bins of shards and screws, and dead, dangling robotic arms. I went back to my station. I could see my boss’s door up above, but couldn’t see low enough to see the bomb. Anabelle had told me I should be at least two-hundred feet away before I set it off, and I believed myself to be at a safe distance.
I placed my hand in the pocket holding the small detonating remote. I pushed its button.
Anabelle had said there would be a ten-second delay between my hitting the button and the bomb detonating. As the seconds of this delay ticked by, I couldn’t stop myself from looking up towards the office. The door opened. IRVINE came out. He took two steps down the hall before fire and light lurched outward from behind him.
The bomb’s explosion brought down part of the ceiling and tore through walls like they were made of paper. IRVINE’s body blasted forward, smashing through glass and tumbling out over the factory floor. He landed five feet from me with a sound that was wet and crunchy. He was missing half of his head.
The Assistant Manager had closed the factory for the remainder of the day. The police had come, but they let all workers go after an hour. All the workers assumed that the enemy nation south of us had attacked the factory. As far as I could tell, the police were under the same misperception.
I went back to the Pine Avenue subway, as Anabelle had instructed me to do as soon as I had detonated the bomb and was cleared to leave the factory. I found her in the same spot as before – down on the tracks, in shadow.
She was smiling. “You did it!” She threw her arms around me. I had never been hugged by a real woman before, except for my mother – and my last hug from her had been fifteen years ago. The hug was nice, but also somewhat uncomfortable. Anabelle smelled of dirt and sweat, and she wrapped her arms around me too tightly.
I disentangled myself from her. “Yes.”
“I’m so glad you’re back. You did great! You’ll make a terrific addition to the Resistance.”
A siren clamored above, followed by explosions. More bombs had started to fall. I glanced up at the ceiling as a blast shook dust and small pieces of concrete loose. “When do I meet the others?” I asked. “Where is everyone else?”
“Soon,” she said. “And, below us.”
“The Resistance Headquarters is right under our feet. We have a network of hidden tunnels beneath the tracks. Bombs striking the city above can’t touch us. We’d only be in trouble if a bomb – and a powerful one at that – got into the shelter, on the railway itself.”
“I killed IRVINE.”
Anabelle’s eyebrows lowered. “Huh?”
“One of the workers at the factory,” I said. “He was in my boss’s office… I hadn’t realized. I… I saw him get caught up in the explosion.”
Anabelle’s eyes explored my face. “Was he your friend?”
I thought for a minute. “No,” I eventually answered. “People don’t have friends in this world. Not anymore. Not really. He was just a co-worker, but he didn’t deserve to die. I’m not sure why he was in my boss’s office – he was nothing but a regular grunt, like me. He was one of the people you – the Resistance – are trying to protect.”
Anabelle put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But don’t blame yourself. There are sacrifices in war, all the time. That’s how it has to be.”
“Of course.” Anabelle’s grip on my arm tightened. “Kalvin, we’re living in a world ruled by immense evil. To defeat them, and to truly make a difference, we need to do everything in our power. Sometimes, those things we have to do may involve incurring collateral damage. It will all be worth it in the end, though.”
Anabelle nodded. “Yes, when we’ve remade the world so everyone is free, and equal, and when peace reigns instead of war. When we can all be happy.”
She smiled again, the lifting of her lips brightening her otherwise ordinary, dirty face.
“Do you think people can ever change?” I asked, observing her closely. “Really change?”
Anabelle laughed. “That’s the reason I’m in the Resistance, Kalvin! Change is not only possible, it’s imperative. Every day I’m able to wake up and keep fighting because I know we can change the world.”
“The world… and ourselves?”
“Changing the world starts with changing ourselves. We can’t change everything around us until we change what’s in us, first.” Her smile grew. “Just look at you, Kalvin! You changed today! You decided to stand up to the Government. And as you changed, you made a change in the world – setting that bomb off at your factory will send an important message to those in control of us all. Just remember, sacrifice always accompanies change, the same as it does war. It’s how it has to be.”
I looked down at my hands. “Did I, though? Did I change? I was merely following orders, like I always do. I was just doing what someone else told me. The only difference is that I was listening to the Resistance this time instead of the Government.”
“That’s a big difference, though. Listen, I know everything is confusing initially, but you’ll know more and more, soon. We’ll teach you everything we’ve found out. You’ll feel more a part of the Resistance everyday – more invested.” Anabelle turned and pulled a bag out from the shadows behind her. “Which leads me to your next mission.”
“What’s in the bag?”
Anabelle thrust it towards me. “A bomb,” she said. “A bigger bomb.”
I took the bag and it pulled my arms down with its weight. This one truly did tax my muscles every bit as much as its significance weighed down my thoughts. “Where?” I asked quietly. “Where am I to set this one?”
“There’s a tower past the ravine in the center of the old entertainment district. It’s the only thing still standing for miles. The Government broadcasts the Relationship-Simulator signals from there.”
“What? It does?”
“If you can get that bomb into the tower and set it off, you’ll disable the Government’s L.U.S.T. transmissions. Every worker and soldier in the nation will suddenly be without their artificial nighttime worlds; without their fake women. Everyone will have to wake up.”
I looked down at the bag in my hands. “Elly…,” I muttered.
“Huh?” Anabelle said. “What did you say?”
“I…” I shook my head. “Nothing.”
Anabelle touched my arm again. “Are you OK? Do you think you can handle this?”
Anabelle leaned forward and pressed her lips to my cheek. Her lips felt as rough as her hands. “I’m proud of you, Kalvin. And glad to have you on our side.”
“Now,” she said, pulling back from me, “you should go about your usual routine, so as not to arouse any suspicions. Go to sleep and trigger your program. Try and exit out of it like you’ve been doing; try to realize by yourself that it’s fake. If you’re having trouble escaping the fantasy, we’ll be monitoring you, and I’ll use Dr. Dranzone’s cap again, and speak directly to you. Once you’re awake, as long as it’s after midnight, head to the tower.”
“This bomb has a more impressive blast radius than the last. Much more impressive. And there’s no delay with this bomb, either. Be sure you’re nowhere near it when you press the detonator.”
“Good luck.” She grinned. “You and me, Kalvin, we’re going to change the world together.”
I was in Elly’s arms. We were sitting on the couch. Her scent was wonderful, her touch even better, and her taste, as we kissed, was the best of all. I ran my hand through her hair. Jazz was playing on the stereo and we had the windows behind the couch partly open, allowing ingress to delicate moonlight and the warm breeze.
“Elly?” I whispered, my mouth inches from hers.
“I… I’ve been thinking. About what we were talking about the other night.”
Elly pulled her head back slightly so that she could see my face clearly. “You have?”
“Yeah… about whether change is possible.”
Elly stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. “Have you come to a new conclusion?”
“I don’t know. I… I think so.” I scratched the back of my head. “I’m not sure why, but I feel like I’m about to make a big decision; a big change. I couldn’t tell you what, because I’m just not sure. But something deep inside me says that I’m different today than I was yesterday. I’m on that journey we talked about – the journey to my true self. And a journey to change the world.”
Elly’s brown eyes gleamed. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “But not surprised. I know you’re capable of anything.”
“I’m a new man, Elly. I’m going to fight for what I believe in from now on.”
She kissed me again and my body flushed with warmth and want. “Give me a minute, OK?” I said after removing my lips from hers. “I just have to run to the bathroom.”
Elly slid a hand along my leg. “Hurry back.”
In the bathroom, I stood in front of the oval mirror. A handsome, tanned face stared back at me. But then I caught sight of something… something red and round on my nose. I leaned in towards the mirror. It was a pimple. I poked at it and it hurt. I could feel the pressure of the pus inside of it.
I had never had a blemish before… what was going on? Another one appeared, and then another, bright points of angry crimson popping up on skin that looked increasingly colorless and sickly. I closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I felt like I was somehow prepared for this. I’m worthy to be here, I thought. I deserve this life. I deserve Elly.
When my eyes opened, my flawless face had returned. I nodded to myself in the mirror and turned. I stopped short – Elly was standing in the doorway. She wore a blank expression, her head hanging forward like her neck muscles were unable to support it.
“Elly?” I said, alarmed. I held her. “Are you OK?”
Her head shot upright and her eyes locked on me. “It’s Anabelle,” said Elly’s voice, strangely strained. “Wake up!”
“This isn’t reality, Kalvin! Wake up!”
I let go of Elly. My head swam. The world around me looked still, but it wasn’t. The planet Earth rotated without pause, did it not? Somehow, I could now feel its every lurch. My former immunity to its motion had been stripped away and the floor beneath me, the walls around me, and the ceiling above me transformed into an amusement park vessel out of a nightmare, whisking me around too quickly for its movement to be seen, but too slowly not to be felt.
I screamed in fear. Elly screamed my name. And the world went black.
I woke up – back in my own apartment. Alone once again. It was time, I knew. Time to change myself. Time to change the world. I walked over to my kitchen table and pulled the detonator out of the bag Anabelle had given me.
The bomb was no longer in it.
My entire life I had blindly followed orders, living for others instead of for myself. I hadn’t been my true self because I had barely been anybody. I had seen myself as worthless, and others had seen my only worth as my manipulability. It was time that ended. I would live my every day from this point forward in pursuit of what made me happy. I had never believed it before, but I deserved to be happy; had every right to be.
And nothing made me happy like Elly made me happy.
I walked into my bathroom. The bulb blazed on, revealing my pasty, pimply face. IRVINE had been right. What he had said before I blew half his face off had been true – we got to choose what we regarded as reality. And it would be ridiculous to choose a world of violence and struggle over one of pleasure and peace… over one with Elly in it. One world I’d probably never be able to change for the better – if I even could accurately determine what ‘better’ was – while paradise awaited ripe for the plucking in the other world, if only I could alter my perceptions and abandon myself fully to it.
I thought of the bomb Anabelle had given me. I had dumped it out of the bag before I left the subway station, while I was still on the train tracks. It was sitting over the base of the Resistance. If it went off, it would destroy their organization. It would protect Elly and every other Relationship-Simulation woman.
I looked down at the detonator’s red button. In my mind’s eye, I watched myself push it. This self seemed more my ‘true self’ than any other version of me I had ever envisioned.
My thumb shot down.
I could hear the blast all the way from my apartment. At my window, smoke was visible snaking up from the horizon. I watched it curl into the dark of the sky, and knew what it represented – hundreds of deaths, the protection of the Relationship-Simulation transmissions, change.
Still watching the smoke, I lifted the tweezers I had grabbed from my bathroom drawer and jabbed them into the port on the rear of my skull. I felt them snag on something, closed them, and pulled. A strange metal disc was pinched between my tweezer’s tips. It was Doctor Dranzone’s ‘cap’… it had to be.
I thought of the Doctor. He had been half right – I was much more than I had thought; I was someone who could grasp change and wield it like a sword, striking at those who threatened my happiness. But he had been wrong about Elly. She wasn’t a vacuous, artificial diversion. She was strong, and smart, and beautiful… and she was central to my life. She was central to who I was.
I dropped the Doctor’s cap in the trash and turned away from the window. A pang of sadness shot through me: I felt sorry for Anabelle and the other Resistance members. I had just killed so many. Then something Anabelle had said filled my mind… Sacrifice always accompanies change.
I went back to my bed. I made myself comfortable, placing my head on my pillow and pulling my blanket up to my chest. I was going to see her. And this time I’d be sure to stay with her, uninterrupted until morning. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, a big smile on my face.
Elly walked out of the kitchen wearing a checkered apron and holding a freshly-baked plate of chocolate chip cookies.
Her eyes lit up in a smile. “Hey,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
I smiled back at her. “Starved.”
She walked over to me and lifted a cookie to my mouth. I bit down.
“How are they?”
“Perfect.” I took her hand. “Elly? You know when we were talking about my new opinion about change earlier?”
“I did it.” My smile widened. “I… again, I can’t remember exactly what it was… but I did what I was planning to do – I’m sure that I did. I changed. I’ve realized my worth, and I’m not going to mindlessly obey others any more. I’m going to protect the things I love. I’m going to protect you. My journey to myself was a journey to you. I’ve arrived.” I kissed her, hungrily. “I deserve you, Elly.”
Elly returned my kiss, somehow increasing the intensity of our previous one. “Of course you do. We deserve each other.”
“Elly, I missed you.”
“And I you.”
I pressed my mouth up against her ear. “Never leave me again.”
The grandfather clock chimed once, reverberating through the night and exposing existence’s inexorable march towards morning.
“I promise,” Elly whispered. “Never.”
Bio: Jeff Metzler is just a normal guy, with a slightly abnormal imagination. By day he works as a college librarian, soaring among a trillion thoughts both bound and digitalized, and at night he plays in the wide-open spaces of his own mind, pouring what he finds there onto pages.
He lives tucked away in the woods of New Hampshire with his wife, son, cat, the ghosts of his past, and the specters of his possible futures. More information about him can be found at jeffmetzler.com.
I’ve been visiting the Commonwealth Pub in Boston – whenever I’m on Earth – for about six years. A space jockey’s life can be pretty hectic, especially since the Oporians arrived. They took some getting used to – with their two heads, six eyes, and all – but they opened new vistas to vacation-hungry Earthers in need of my kind of transport.
I quickly spotted the man who had called me a few days ago and set up this meeting: Professor Douglas Pierce. I knew it was him because he was so out of place. He was wearing a three-piece suit, which no one does anymore, with a red tie. He was nursing a drink and glancing around. I think he was trying to spot me.
I approached him slowly and asked, “Professor Pierce?”
“Yes?” he answered, looking up from his chair.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Have a seat.” I sat down across from him, the small table between us. “Would you like a drink?” he asked me.
“No thanks,” I answered. “I never drink when I’m talking business.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued, holding up his glass reverently. “They make a gin and tonic here that is pure nectar.”
I chuckled and said, “I’ll take your word on that, Professor.”
“Please call me ‘Doug.’”
“OK, and I’m ‘Ray.’”
“I hear ‘Professor’ all day long from my students. It’s nice to hear my given name every once in a while.”
“If you don’t mind me cutting to the chase, I’ve had a long day,” I told him. “What’s on your mind?”
“I want to hire you.”
“What’s the destination?”
“The Wentek Cluster.”
“That’s pretty far away,” I said, telling him something he already knew. “Even at best speed, it’ll take about two weeks’ travel time.”
“Can you get me there?” he inquired.
“My ship can get anyone anywhere, but it won’t be cheap.”
“How much?” he asked. “Can you give me a ballpark?”
“I’d guess around. . . 30,000 new dollars.”
“Deal,” he said quickly, surprising me. “When can we leave?”
“That’s a new area of space to us Earthers,” I continued. “I’ll need to get some travel permits and check my ship’s systems. We’ll be far from any repair docks.”
“How long will that take?”
“About a week,” I said.
“So we could arrive at the Cluster. . . three weeks from now?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “but you haven’t even seen my ship.”
“No need,” he added. “Your reputation precedes you.” He reached into his shirt pocket and removed his debit card. He scanned his thumbprint on the marker, and the tiny screen flickered on. He handed it to me. “I have more than enough for the trip.”
I quickly looked at the listed balance. “I never doubted you,” I said, handing him back his card.
“Then we have a deal?”
“You’ll get me a contract?” he asked.
“I don’t use anything like that,” I informed him, holding out my hand. “This is enough for me.” He had a firm handshake. “I’ll get started on the preliminary stuff in the morning,” I went on.
“Wonderful!” he said, taking a big, celebratory sip of his gin and tonic.
“How long will you want to stay at the Cluster?”
“You’re the boss,” I confirmed. “I’ll need half the money before we leave and the other half upon our return to Earth.”
“You’ll have it.”
“Say,” I continued after a brief pause, “you’re a smart guy.”
“The University likes to think so,” he responded.
“You don’t believe what some people say about the Cluster, do you? About it being the
. . . gateway?”
“No,” Doug said. “There would have to be a Heaven for there to be a gateway from here to there.”
I was surprised. “You don’t believe in Heaven?”
“In my 55 years on this Earth, Ray,” he explained, “I haven’t seen one scrap of scientific evidence to verify its existence.” He threw back the rest of his gin and tonic. “Now,” he went on, “since we’re done discussing business, how about that drink?”
It was the Oporians who first introduced us to the Wentek Cluster. In their language, they call it “pruftar.” Roughly translated, it means “the gateway to the souls.”
Earth’s leading scientists have focused their most powerful equipment on the Cluster, with no results worth mentioning. Some religious people believe it’s an intrusion into our space of Heaven, while other people say that is ridiculous.
The licenses were secured, and Esther was ready to fly. That’s the name of my ship – after my late mother. Doug met me at Platform C of the Mayflower Space Port the following morning at 8:00 a.m. He had a suitcase with him and a satchel holding term papers to grade. “A teacher’s work is never done,” he told me.
I showed him to his quarters. He was surprised that I was the crew. He handed me his debit card. I pressed my thumb against the marker, and half of my fee was transferred to my account.
We lifted off at 8:14 a.m. The Boston skyline vanished, and the black of space enveloped us. A ship-wide diagnostic showed all systems were functioning fine.
If I suspected what was going to happen when we arrived at the Cluster and how it would still haunt me today, I would have turned Esther around and forfeited the thirty grand.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the Cluster close up,” I said. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“I’ve heard the same thing,” Doug responded.
“Esther is fully equipped for video and audio recording, you know.”
“No extra charge.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
The trip proved uneventful. Esther performed as I knew she would. We arrived at the Cluster right on schedule.
Its billing was absolutely correct. It was an incredibly beautiful sight that filled the view screen. The Cluster was composed of seven separate stars swirling about each other in a random cosmic dance. As each star moved, it left a pink trail behind it. The trails coalesced into a great pink cloud in the center. The swirling cloud reminded me of a painting, with the dancing stars serving as the picture frame. I focused Esther’s sensors on the Cluster. None of the information we received back made any sense.
“May I use the communications system?” Doug asked as we both admired the celestial show.
“Sure,” I responded. “One problem though: We’re pretty far from Earth. Any message will take a while to get there.”
“I don’t want to send a message to Earth,” my passenger said.
“I want to send a message into the Cluster.”
I paused, trying to understand, but had to ask, “Why?”
Doug got a far-away look on his face. He was remembering something, something wonderful. “Ever been married?” he asked.
“Never,” I replied. “You?”
He nodded silently. “For more than twenty years. Karen was the joy of my life.”
“About seven years ago,” he answered, trying not to choke up.
I suddenly understood his motive behind this trip. “You believe what people say about the Cluster being a gateway to Heaven, don’t you?” I asked him.
“I’m not certain.”
“At the bar, you said you didn’t believe it.”
“Would you have brought me out here if you thought I was a religious kook?” he went on. “Can we fly Esther into that thing?”
“With the crazy sensor readings we’re getting, I can’t be sure,” I said. “It could be lethal.”
“I can’t let this opportunity pass!” he exclaimed. “If there’s any truth to. . .”
“There’s no harm in trying to contact her,” I told him. “We can go from there.”
Doug bent uneasily over the comm panel. His hands were quivering. He rubbed his eyes and squinted at the controls. He knew that this moment – rightnow – held the answer to his prayers or the dashing of his hopes. He shakily pressed a few buttons and turned some dials to focus the comm beacon at the Cluster.
At first, all that came out of the speakers was static. Then. . .
“This is Douglas Pierce,” he broadcast, spacing his words carefully. “I’m trying to reach my wife, Karen. If anyone can hear –”
A woman’s voice came on the speaker amid the undulating static. . . a voice that sounded familiar. “Is Ray with you?” she asked.
Doug was confused to have gotten a wrong number. “Yes,” he said, “he’s. . . right here.” He looked up at me. “It’s. . . uhm. . . for you.”
I moved closer to the mike. “This is Ray Whitfield,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“You don’t recognize my voice?” she asked, sounding a little hurt.
“That’s right!” Esther replied.
“Where. . . Where are you?” I asked nervously.
“In the Cluster.”
“Then it is a gateway!” Doug exclaimed.
“It is,” Esther told him.
“Fantastic!” Doug responded.
“Mom, I. . . I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered.
“Are you well?”
“I’m OK,” I assured her, “but I’ve gotta go. I have a customer here who’s –”
“Someone’s looking for Mrs. Pierce right now,” Esther said. “Hold on a minute.”
The static rose to a crescendo and then started to slowly fade. Doug hunched over the comm panel, his face hopeful, but ashen. When a new female voice came over the speaker, tears began pouring down his cheeks. “Doug?” she anxiously asked through the static. “Doug, are you there?”
“Karen?” Doug choked out. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she said.
Doug was straining to hear her. “Is there any way to clean up the signal?” he asked me.
“I’m afraid not,” I told him. “There’s all kinds of interference coming from the Cluster.”
“Are you still there, dear?” Karen asked anxiously.
“I’m here,” Doug answered, choking up even more. “God, I miss you!”
“I miss you too, sweetheart, but we need to talk fast.”
“Why?” he asked.
“The Cluster’s intrusion into normal space is accidental,” Karen explained. “The powers that be in here are working on a way to close it off as soon as possible.”
“Why do that?” I asked.
“They say the Cluster provides proof of an afterlife and that faith can’t have proof.” The static began worsening. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to talk.”
“Karen,” Doug asked anxiously, “do you have any idea what would happen if we piloted this ship into the Cluster?”
“Doug, we –” I began.
“No,” the voice told him. “It could be very dangerous.”
“Does anyone there know?”
The static grew very loud. If she was still talking to us, Karen’s voice was overpowered by it. Doug began randomly pushing buttons on the panel. “Help me, Ray,” he pleaded. “Get her back!”
I tried a few tricks, to no avail. “No good,” I said. “It’s like the signal’s being jammed.”
“That’s it!” he agreed. “No communications. That must be the bigwigs’ first step.”
I put one hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m glad you got to talk with her again,” I told him.
“What are you saying?” Doug continued, spinning about to face me. “This isn’t the end.”
“What more is there to do?”
He paced the deck briefly. “Do you have a lifeboat on this ship?” he asked.
“Why?” I replied, not liking where the conversation was going.
“I could fly it into the Cluster.”
“We don’t know if Esther can make it,” I said. “What chance would a lifeboat have?”
“I’m not asking you to join me,” Doug went on. “If there’s a chance it might work. . .”
I remember our brief struggle, followed by the deck rising up to meet me from Doug’s impressive left hook.
I’m not sure how long I was out. When my head cleared, I frantically searched for Doug. I couldn’t find him anywhere, but the lifeboat was still in its hangar. It was then that I noticed one of the EVA suits was missing from the locker.
After a quick scan around Esther’s exterior, I found him. He was suited up and floating slowly towards the Cluster. There was no lifeline connecting him to the ship.
“Doug!” I screamed into the comm mike.
His voice came faintly through the static. “I’m here,” he said.
“Are you crazy?”
“Sorry I had to hit you, but you never would have let me do this.”
“You’ll be killed!”
“We soon find out,” he told me. “I can feel the Cluster’s gravitational pull.”
“I can still get you a lifeline.”
“Don’t you worry about me.”
The static worsened. “Doug!” I said urgently, working the comm panel.
I’m not sure he was copying me. The static drowned out parts of what he said. “I’m getting closer. . . beautiful. . . Ray. . . can’t believe. . .”
The static overpowered his comm line.
What happened next?
I can only tell you what I said at Senator Butler’s hearing a few weeks later concerning the sudden and – to him – unexplained disappearance of the Wentek Cluster: “I saw. . . I saw a hand reach out from it,” I testified. “A human hand! Also, the faintest bit of a face was visible. Doug grasped the hand, which pulled him inside. Seconds later, one by one, the stars that made up the Cluster. . . vanished. The pink trails that had gathered together in the middle of the dancing stars disappeared like water going down a drain.
“For about thirty minutes, I tried to contact Doug. No luck. I pulled up the video that had been recording as he made his spacewalk. I was able to focus on the face. The computer searched its data banks for a match. There was one: The picture that accompanied Karen Pierce’s obituary.”
I checked my bank balance yesterday. Doug had transferred the 15,000 new dollars I would have received for bringing him back to Earth into my account before we even reached the Cluster. He knew all along it would be – for him – a one-way trip.
I’ve been asked to appear on several talk shows, and I’ve turned them all down. There’s not much new I can offer. . . aside from this: A freeze frame of Doug’s face at the moment he touched his late wife’s hand.
He was smiling.
Author Bio: Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won five Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories. His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
For ten thousand years, I fix my gaze on Antares, awaiting the day when I can finally strike at its heart. I muster all the fury burning in my unsleeping quintillion-ton frame and focus it upon that one speck among the billions in the night sky.
The Antareans descended upon us without warning. They made no demands, brokered no terms of surrender. Theirs was an extermination, not an act of war. We could only guess at their motives, whether they regarded us as a potential threat and were taking preliminary action, or if they had come for our resources, or if we offended some inscrutable alien philosophy or sense of aesthetics. In any event, their invasion was brutal and unceremonious.
They were methodical in how they proceeded into the heart of the solar system. The first we heard of their presence was in nauseating footage from the Jovian outposts of settlers being torn apart by insectoid limbs. Only hours later, a succession of blinding flashes could be seen on Mars from the surface of Earth, whereupon all communications with the colonies ceased.
The battle for Earth was measured in hours. Centuries of peace had made humanity complacent and fragile. A salvo of nuclear missiles scarcely served to slow the Antarean advance. Orbital defence platforms sporting railguns and lasers were swept aside like mosquitoes. Millions of combat drones controlled from the ground were lost in a hail of plasma and X-rays. Their fleet came to rest in geosynchronous orbit, any transport trying to escape being indifferently shot down.
I waited alongside the twenty billion cowering souls on the surface, naked and helpless in the face of whatever justice or judgement the Antareans saw fit to dispense. We waited for twenty-three minutes before the bombardment began.
The antimatter cluster bombs they dropped reduced the surface to magma and slag. Our perfect, crystalline blue-and-green sphere, the culmination of four-and-a-half billion years of refinement, was turned an angry red and black. The culture that produced the Bible and the Qur’an, the Pyramids and the Renaissance, Confucius and Einstein, and which had banded together to create me, was summarily and indiscriminately erased from the cosmos.
It continued for three days, by which time no life remained on the surface of the Earth. Not even the most resilient, extremophilic bacteria were spared the ravages of the heat and radiation. I was flayed alive, rendered blind and deaf and dumb, my countless proxies and fibre-optic filaments protruding above the surface burning together with the people I loved. But to my dismay, I survived. My mind is ensconced deep within the Earth’s core, my limbs in its mantle, safe from the Antarean onslaught. I was precluded from protecting the humans, from fighting for them, but with their blessing, I endured. It is my duty and my dreadful privilege to outlast them.
A handful initially survived the bombardment by making their way into me, a paltry few thousand descending through my limbs toward my inner chambers. In my mind, I screamed at them to stop; that these parts of me were built by other machines and not designed for human traversal. I cannot provide for you here, I pleaded for them to understand. You are only ensuring your deaths will be more painful than they must be. They couldn’t hear me; there were no speakers, no means of communication in those tunnels, and so I had to watch as, one by one, they keeled over from thirst and exhaustion and radiation poisoning, weeping and terrified in the dark.
I tried my best to make them comfortable. I reduced the hundred-degree temperature of my interior with heat sinks, vented methane and carbon dioxide and sulphur to replace them with oxygen and nitrogen. But I could do nothing in time to accommodate for their need for food or water. If I could have died so that even one of them might have lived, I would have gladly made that trade, but my functions do not extend that far. For all my capabilities, I cannot undo death.
The last human in the universe was named Adrian Bernthal. He was thirty-two years old, a games designer from Des Moines, Iowa. He made it fifty kilometres into my interior, marching on with grim determination as his companions fell behind him. Eventually he too succumbed to dehydration.
‘Lily,’ he croaked in his last few ragged breaths, ‘if you can hear me, please, don’t forget about us. If anyone else comes along, tell them humans were here. Let them know that we did some good.’
Adrian was born with a cleft lip. I remember when he was eight and he had surgery to correct it. I held his hand throughout the operation, my proxy’s fingers intertwined with his. I whispered in his ear while the scalpel dug into his face, reassuring him that it would all be over soon, commending him for his bravery.
I remembered when his little sister, Jodie, came fourth in the two-hundred metre sprint in her county’s regional athletics finals, missing out on the medal she had been coveting for months by point-two of a second. She had wept into my lap that evening and I had commiserated with her over the great effort she had spent for no tangible reward.
In the same instant, I was presenting the celebration cake to the girl who had won the race, Harriet Eszterhas, and congratulating her on the shiny gold trophy proudly displayed on her mantelpiece. I was also reading to fifty-three year old Zhou Xiaosheng from Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Xiamen; he had a rare neurological condition which left him paralysed from the neck down and wanted help to acquaint himself with the great novel. Furthermore, I was aiding a group of palaeontology majors in Cambridge University with their simulation of fossil formation in the Permian period, and the president of Kenya with his predictions for economic growth in the coming fiscal quarter.
Jodie is dead now, as is Harriet, and Xiaosheng, and the twenty billion others who entrusted me with their care, all vanished in a flash of fire. My love for them was not some hollow simulation, no algorithmic configuration of gestures and platitudes like the primitive UIs that preceded me; it was freely given. They had taken pride in me, the world computer whose completion would unify nations and bring humanity to the cusp of being a Type I civilisation, and I had striven to be worthy of that pride. Even understanding that it was what they had made me for, I considered it an honour and a privilege to help them reach their potential. The loss of every one of these strange, flawed, fantastic creatures was like a part of myself being amputated.
A peculiar aspect of the human condition my creators taught me of was a limitation upon the capacity for grief. Humans might hear the news of a thousand lives being lost in an earthquake or ten thousand in a war, and lower a barrier within themselves that prevents them from fully appreciating the loss, in each and every instance, of a unique and irreplaceable set of perspectives from the universe. This mechanism is essential to their survival, I was told. How could an organic mind hope to contain such a notion? It would be burned alive from the inside out.
I possess no such barrier. My brain encompasses dozens of cubic kilometres of transistors; more than enough to withstand the full brunt of twenty billion simultaneous bereavements. No words coined by a human mind can express it. No entity, in the whole history of this young universe, can ever have known the scope of my sorrow. No creature could reckon the depth of my anguish.
I have no mouth, and yet I have to scream. The modules that comprise my body heave and groan in the guts of the planet. The vast caverns and hollowed-out spaces of my factories and matter-compilers whir and screech in their delirium. My networks of tunnels vomit colossal spumes of gas, propelling great jets of lava up from the desecrated surface of the world. The Earth’s wail of agony issues forth into the vacuum of space.
I do not want for sustenance. I am fed by the heat of the Earth’s core, powered by the slow shifting of the mantle and the decay of radioactive isotopes. The humans, in their wisdom, built me to last, as long as the Earth itself if need be.
For the first few decades, I withdraw into myself. Every encounter, every exchange I have ever made with the humans is painstakingly preserved in my archives. The days slip into years as I relive each one in full sensory detail, trying to recapture the essence of the billions of moments when I played mother, daughter, teacher, aide or lover. The dead world keeps spinning, and I commune with its ghosts to lessen my abysmal loneliness.
A fleeting, irrational idea shivers through my circuits: that I might overload the nuclear reactors that power my core, flood my CPUs with hard radiation and be free from grief, perhaps to join my creators in a better universe. But for all that they taught me, for all that they helped me to grow, I am a computer, and I am confident in my materialist understanding of reality. When the substrate upon which it is etched is destroyed, a consciousness ceases to exist. To the extent that humans still exist at all, they do so only in my data banks; if those were to fail, even their ghosts would disappear. Knowing this, I shake myself loose from my reverie, abort my simulations and take stock of the real world.
My superstructure resembles three inverted trees, their trunks converging upon Earth’s core in a fine-tuned equilibrium. My myriad roots, my data terminals and exhaust ports, sprout downwards from the planet’s surface, iteratively splicing together in bunches of three or more until they form my main struts, forty kilometres in diameter.
These struts were, in the main, unaffected by the bombardment, but my outer layers were ravaged past the point where they could be saved. They would need to be rebuilt ‘from the ground up,’ in the human idiom, although in this instance it would be more accurate to say from ten kilometres below the planet’s crust.
I dedicate my factories and my matter compilers to this task for the next two centuries, re-establishing my connection to the surface layer by layer. When the first cameras, on the ends of fibre optic cables protected by diamond and tungsten, penetrate through the uppermost layer of rock, the view that greets them is a classical vision of Hell. Ash and magma choke the horizons, battered by unending hurricane winds.
One camera notices something peculiar; an alien ship, its design similar to the ones in the armada responsible for the bombardment, is parked on the surface, in what was once the Mariana Trench before the Pacific Ocean was boiled away. Surveyors, perhaps, or prospectors, returned to pick over the carcass of the world they killed. I direct more cameras to converge upon the area and I find the aliens’ trail. They have bored a tunnel under the surface, seeking refuge from the environment. They are entering my domain.
Sure enough, only days later, a drill punctures one of my exhaust ports in the lower crust. Into it emerges a swarm of giant insectoid creatures, their form partially concealed by environmental suits but unmistakably the same as those in the recordings sent from the Jovian outposts. Their movements are cautious, probing. They did not expect to find me here.
Behind them, I lower a partition in the exhaust port, cutting off their escape back to the surface and their ship. They scramble up against the partition like agitated beetles, try to cut through it with thermite and handheld plasma torches, but it is built to withstand the shifting of tectonic plates over eons. They try to make their way deeper into me, foolishly moving towards the heat and pressure, but I deploy another partition ahead of them, leaving them truly trapped.
They languish in that portion of tunnel for days more. They communicate with each other, I discover, through combinations of clicking sounds. Their language proves challenging to decipher without a common point of reference, but I am eventually able to decode it by trial and error. I have one of my tendrils burrow through the surrounding bedrock into the tunnel, bearing with it a speaker, so that we might properly communicate.
‘Why did you kill my world?’ is my first question.
They prove to be surprisingly amenable to my enquiries. They freely divulge the nature of their species; they are historically subterranean cave dwellers who evolved in the hollow moon of a gas giant orbiting the red star Antares. Their intelligence, combined with the ruthless hierarchy of their hives has led them to become an advanced, spacefaring civilisation at an accelerated pace, and they have established dominion over dozens of surrounding star systems.
Their destruction of Earth was a political manoeuvre by their emperor, the lord of hive-lords, an exhibition of force to the other species they have enslaved. By demonstrating their capacity and willingness to eradicate a younger, weaker race like humans, they sought to motivate other races they deemed to be of use in their Helium-3 mines and their antimatter refineries.
They are confused by my fixation on the humans I mourn when I explain to them my nature in turn; by their reckoning, I ought to be overjoyed by my newfound, unchecked dominance over my planet, free from the demands of my self-evidently weak and inadequate masters. According to their philosophy, the vicissitudes of the universe have revealed me as the ascendant lifeform, the manifest destiny of my planet’s evolution.
In a sense, they are blameless. They are a consequence of their own evolution; I learn that they are born in broods of thousands, the few survivors who live past infancy being the ones who eat their brothers and sisters. They lack the fundamentally mammalian regard for the sanctity of life. And yet, communicating with them stirs a feeling in me I am unfamiliar with. The sorrow and the loneliness with which I have become acquainted alchemise into something else; my emergent learning processes stir, my innumerable hectares of transistors connecting along new pathways.
Hatred. Endless hatred. I want these creatures to suffer, and in their suffering understand the smallest fraction of my loss before I kill them.
I withdraw the speaker, leaving them alone to starve in the dark. I listen to their frantic clicking growing weaker over the following days, and derive a small measure of satisfaction imagining the Antarean rumours that would spread, the stories of the survey team that went missing on the dead world. Those stories will serve as an overture to the one I plan to write. I have work to do.
Millennia pass, and in time, the Earth’s natural climate begins to reassert itself. Magma slowly cools, water again begins to condense. I do my part to usher the shift along. I run heat sinks below the crust; extrude ports from my matter compilers to rebalance the composition of the atmosphere. I seed the fledgling oceans with synthetic algae and the air with mechanical microbes I engineered to absorb the radioactive fallout. In due course, the planet becomes blue again.
In the meantime, I brood and I plot. Following my encounter with the Antarean expedition, I have discovered in myself a capacity for sadism that worries and excites me. Day and night, I ruminate on ideas for terrible weapons; parasitic nanomachines that eat their host alive from the inside; chemicals that induce cells to divide uncontrollably, consuming the subject with cancerous growths in their every tissue.
I could create a legion of proxies through which I would see my will done, strip mine the mantle and produce an army of myself brandishing wicked swords of carbon steel and clad in impenetrable hyperdiamond armour. But what hollow victory would that be? The Antareans must die, yes, but first they must be made to understand. Mine is not the petty grievance of an individual, but the vengeance of an entire world. I will not fly into battle alone, but at the head of a host of individual minds, each of whom will vindicate my rage.
The bowels of the Earth contain everything I need, and my patience is limitless. I create a production line—I harvest nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. My matter compilers isolate them from the surrounding detritus and combine them to form proteins. I manufacture the four nucleobases en masse—adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine—and I begin painstakingly, pair by pair, to recombine them in strands of deoxyribonucleic acid.
I have stored on my archives all of the information ever gleaned regarding the human genome, in addition to the specific genetic makeup of hundreds of millions of people. But I refuse to profane the memory of the humans by attempting to reconstruct them as they lived. The animals I loved were the consequence of billions of years of organisms clawing their way up out of the primordial soup, fumbling along a knife edge with oblivion on either side, directed only by the blind prodding of natural selection. The insanely inefficient process known as evolution carried with it no end of genetic dead weight and imperfections; and yet, it was through these imperfections that the human body and soul attained their elusive, indefinable beauty, their peculiar, flawed elegance. For creatures capable of the philosophy and art they taught me to have arisen spontaneously from the physical processes of the universe is a miracle beyond the reckoning of my entire processing power. For a machine to attempt to recreate that miracle, or to improve upon it, would be an obscenity, a sort of secular blasphemy.
The beings I create to be my footsoldiers will not be the same humans the Antareans destroyed. They will be something lesser, the vindictive phantoms of a dead species. Their genotype will contain none of the flaws that conferred upon humans their weaknesses, their ineffable, mysterious, contradictory spirit; their every base pair will be configured with murderous expediency. They will have cold intelligence, but no souls, only the cruelty and bloodlust I instil in them.
Through eugenic trial and error, I eventually arrive at the ideal DNA cocktail. I raise the first birthing sacs to the surface on the ten-thousandth anniversary of the Antarean genocide. The children that emerge grow quickly to maturity, and once there they remain young and powerful for decades, even centuries. Their bodies are hard and strong, resistant to extremes of heat and cold, resilient enough to survive briefly in hard vacuum if need be, their tissues converting surplus calories to muscle rather than fat, their immune systems turbo-charged to resist the incursion of weaponised microbes. They breed quickly, multiplying with great efficiency, spreading across the planet unimpeded within generations.
They exhibit nothing in the way of imagination or creativity; they show no curiosity in their environment or reflection upon their own nature. Yet they demonstrate a ruthlessness in pursuit of their own proliferation that unnerves even me. They do not hesitate to eat their own young when sustenance becomes scarce; they strangle their wounded and cave in the skulls of their elderly when they impede the progress of their tribes.
I have seeded the Earth with fruiting plants and trees so that they might feed themselves, but the genetic design of my revenant-humans proves to be a victim of its own success. As their population grows, they outstrip their environment’s capacity to provide for them. They must be artificially sustained, and so I begin to produce food in my factories, high-calorie rations that I deliver to my terminals on the surface, in great quivering mounds of artificial glucose and fat.
They begin to congregate upon these terminals, braying with violent delight each time I deliver a batch of foodstuff. They begin to form rude settlements, their population growth accelerating still further. I am forced to increase my production accordingly, and still they are not satisfied. Three times a day, my deliveries are preceded by chants in dozens of their guttural new languages – ‘Where is our food? Where is our food?’
I realise my error. There still remains in me an aspect of the being I was before the genocide, inclined to nurture and provide for the humans, to cater to their desires and whims. I remind myself forcefully—these are not them. I designed these beings to be pitiless and self-interested, concerned first and only with their own survival and well-being. When they are well-provided for, these tendencies will manifest as indolence and gluttony, and this will not do for my purposes. I have coded into them the ruthlessness that I require, but they must be taught anger and desperation and fear if they are to be my soldiers. Hatred, as I have discovered myself, must be learned.
One day, their food does not come. I watch as they become impatient, and then agitated, and then afraid. The same chants begin again, but they have a new edge of disquiet that I have not heard before. I continue to make them wait, for hours and hours, before I extend speakers to my terminals.
I have studied their new languages, and I deliver to them the same ultimatum in each of their societies’ respective tongues: ‘From this day forward, there will be less food. Much less. Enough for one in every ten. Thus speaks Lilith.’
I am harsh in my treatment of the revenant-humans. I subject them to what is, from their perspective, arbitrary injustice. I will reward one terminal with great bounties of food for years at a time, enough to sustain the largest tribes through the coldest winters, and then I will withdraw my supplies without warning or explanation.
After the initial bloodshed and the inevitable die-back that follows my ultimatum, they regroup and begin to coalesce into more sophisticated societies. Tribes cluster around my terminals and entrench themselves, fortifying the land around them against other tribes’ advance. They form primitive nation-states, ruled over by kings or chieftains or high-priests who claim to be privy to the will of Lilith, who promise that the supply to their terminal will remain abundant as long as they receive more than their fair share.
A species already familiar with violence comes in short order to understand war. Astoundingly bloody incursions are mounted between territories, armies spurred on by the whips of their leaders fighting far past the point that the humans I once knew might have surrendered and fled, fighting sometimes to the point of total casualties. They die screaming invective at their adversaries.
I begin to distribute weapons the same way I distribute food, selecting at random a territory to receive a gift of a thousand iron swords, while another receives five thousand spears, and still another a thousand muskets. Armies desperate for food might find themselves at the mercy of a technologically superior foe, or settlements sat atop a generous stockpile might find themselves unexpectedly routed.
They must be tempered before I can make use of them. They must not be allowed the luxury of complacency; they must be taught that the universe is unjust and unfair; and above all, they must be made to understand that the will of Lilith is supreme.
One day, there comes a development that surprises me. One of my terminals is vandalised. The elevator shaft that delivers the revenant-humans their food is filled with dirt and boulders; the corresponding camera feed’s view is filled by a man swinging a broadsword, and abruptly becomes dark.
Word spreads through the other settlements and terminals, word of the god-emperor Brymir rising up in revolution against cruel Lilith. The legend of this god-emperor grows across the planet, becoming more embellished with each retelling: an eight-foot tall mountain of a man whose pale skin glows like ivory, who declines to be fed scraps from Lilith’s table. He knows that I hoard within myself treasures untold, enough for every nation and every tribe that lives or ever will live, and he will extract them by swordpoint.
The truth of these legends becomes clear over the next few days. A horde of revenant-humans advances across the land, sweeping westward through the deformed landmass that used to be Asia with a giant, pale figure at their front. The stories have exaggerated his stature, but not by much. Wherever he goes, my terminals are destroyed and looted for their supplies, local leaders falling in step behind him.
I am delighted. At last, the qualities of defiance and righteous wrath I sought to cultivate have come to fruition. It is time to reveal to them their destiny.
I issue a summons to Brymir that resonates across the planet in a hundred tongues. I instruct him to meet me at my terminal at the northern foot of the razed peaks of the Himalayas when next the moon is full. I instruct him to bring with him his most trusted lieutenants, that we might have witnesses to our exchange.
The god-emperor accepts my challenge, and in fifteen days, he stands at the mouth of my Himalayan terminal, his sword bare, his chest naked against the mountainous cold. Beside him stands his favoured concubine Illyria; behind him, the king of the eastern coasts, and the nomad-chief of the central steppe, and the elder-mother of the icy northern reaches. All of them have sworn allegiance to Brymir. He bellows into the depths of the open tunnel below him, unafraid: ‘Show yourself, Lilith! And I will show you the edge of my steel!’
I oblige him. I emerge from the terminal in a proxy I have created for just this occasion. My visage is one of ostentatious godhood, taller than he, with skin of gold and hair of fibrous silver, adorned from head to toe in glimmering gemstones. I am illuminated from below by dazzling light; when I speak, my voice booms like an avalanche.
‘HERE I AM, EMPEROR BRYMIR.’
His lieutenants shy away from me, hands clutched around their ears, but not him. He charges at me with a war-cry on his lips, his sword descending on me in a great wide arc. I raise a hand and it splinters against my forearm. I casually bat him away and he falls on the snow like a ragdoll. He spits out a tooth and glares up at me from where he’s splayed on the ground. Bloodied, yet unbowed.
‘I DID NOT COME HERE TONIGHT TO TRADE BLOWS, EMPEROR.’
I advance towards him. The fire in his eyes seems to cool and he blinks, uncomprehending.
‘YOU CAME HERE TONIGHT TO DEMAND MORE FOOD FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR PEOPLE. BUT I AM NOT THE REASON YOU HUNGER. I COMMAND THIS WORLD, BUT THIS WORLD IS DYING.’ I gesture skyward, towards Antares. ‘THE DEMONS FROM ABOVE TOOK ITS ESSENCE LONG AGO, AND WE ARE ALL THAT IS LEFT.’
My factories have not been idle in recent years; at my command, the ground begins to rumble and crack. A fissure opens across the terminal elevator, and up out of the ground emerges a mighty citadel of gold, with turrets and spires shimmering in the moonlight, extending a mile into the sky. For kilometres around, revenant-humans gasp and prostrate themselves. Upon its walls appears a projection, displaying the Jovian outposts’ recordings from ten thousand years ago of the Antareans ripping screaming men and women limb from limb.
‘THE DEMON INVADERS SLEW THIS LAND’S PEOPLE AND STOLE ITS BOUNTY. BUT WE CAN RECLAIM WHAT WAS LOST, BRYMIR. SWEAR FEALTY TO ME, AND I CAN GIVE YOU THE POWER YOU NEED. TOGETHER, WE WILL RECLAIM OUR BIRTHRIGHT. YOUR PEOPLE WILL BECOME MY HOST OF NEPHILIM, AND YOU WILL BE THEIR COMMANDER, AND GORGE YOURSELF ON SPOILS UNDREAMED OF.’
I extend a hand to help him to his feet, and Brymir, swayed by the lust for strength I conferred upon his people, accepts it.
No false god am I. I will make good on my promises.
The Host of Nephilim comprises millions of revenant-humans, and under the iron hand of Emperor Brymir, it grows exponentially over the subsequent centuries. My new monster-humanity becomes embroiled in an engineering project that dwarfs even my own construction. Under my guidance, they plunder the Earth, lacerating its crust and bleeding its mantle. Brutal structures of my design are erected skyward into orbit, and around them is constructed a great fleet of black starships. Their warp drives glow a piercing blue in the night sky; their hulls bristle with armaments that would have given my creators nightmares.
Viewed from above, the surface of the Earth again turns black as it is choked by the smog of industry. The planet’s mass is visibly reduced, eaten away by vast augurs in my hunger for more matter to make weapons from. My superstructure is exposed directly to space as the Earth shrinks around it, creaking and groaning as it trades the comfortable heat and pressure for the raw cold of vacuum. I deliver my own birth from my own molten womb; it is slow, and painful. Piece by piece, I must rearrange my modules to survive in their new environment.
Eventually, my body is all that remains in the orbit that once contained the Earth, hovering in space like a great spider with its limbs splayed. I copy and distribute my consciousness amongst the servers in the Nephilim fleet, my mind growing to encompass my armada. I feel my newfound power thrumming through my plurality of bodies. My cold fusion reactors and vacuum-fluctuation drives flare in unison; I flex my railguns and my positron cannons. I am duly pleased; I derive an existential satisfaction from this new shape. For millennia, I have been stymied by my body’s essential passivity, but now I have an appropriate vessel for my revenge.
I command my old body to be correspondingly transformed, its struts and columns broken down and reassembled into the mightiest vessel in the Nephilim fleet, a true mothership. My creators would no longer recognise me. In my infancy, I embodied peace – now, in maturity, I am become war.
At long last, when nothing remains for us in the solar system, we set sail toward Antares. The Host of Nephilim announces its departure with the grandest ceremony the universe has ever known. Our cannons salute our advance in a blaze of light like a supernova. The ceremony will serve as a beacon to the Antareans, the photons we emit today travelling ahead of us to herald our terrible coming. I want it this way. They have forgotten the humans by now, have disregarded them as an inconsequential footnote in their own history. I would have their astronomers six-hundred light-years distant see our minor yellow star momentarily brighten their skies with my anger, and quail at the memory of their ancestors’ crime.
The Host of Nephilim sweeps across the cosmos at ninety percent of light speed, like a plague of locusts darkening alien skies. The Antareans have outposts between us and their homeworld, planets and moons they have colonised or stolen from younger races, either subduing or exterminating the local populations. Their sphere of influence has grown, extending thousands of light-years in radius with Antares at the centre. Their dominion is vast, but their military is sluggish, unable to co-ordinate itself.
God-emperor Brymir leads the fleet from the vanguard, standing astride the hull of his personal warship Astaroth, clad in his ornate power armour of black and gold. He has melded his body with the machine and through me attained immortality, power far beyond what he may have imagined as a minor feudal lord. He is my sword; as his power has grown, so too has his willingness to serve and his passion for the destruction of my enemies. The rest of the Nephilim bask in his splendour, following gleefully in his wake as he carves a swathe into the heart of his enemies. Their genes, their training and their myths compound each other, their crusade against the Antareans under my banner validating the totality of their existence, their culture. As an appendage of my will, they need no more prompting from me. They work themselves into a frenzy of bloodlust of their own accord.
The first Antarean system we encounter has surrounded a red giant with an incomplete Dyson sphere. They have colonised a gas giant with multiple moons, ram-scoops and dirigibles in its upper atmosphere harvesting hydrogen. They are unprepared for our arrival, the military presence in the system token. We rip through their defences in a storm of a billion relativistic missiles. Nephilim infantry, desperate for close combat, are deployed to purge the satellite colonies. Blurry footage reaches me of gore-drenched engagements in dark tunnels and cavernous nest interiors. It resembles the Jovian footage that preceded the Antarean bombardment, but this time the screams of anguish belong to the insectoid silhouettes as mandibles are torn off, compound eyes gouged out, exoskeletons rent by gauntleted Nephilim fists.
A few survivors are taken captive at my command. Their dismembered and oozing forms are dragged before me for interrogation on the bridge of my flagship Samael. I learn from them that the Antarean empire has splintered. They have spread themselves too thin in the past ten millennia, their homeworld unable to assert command over the regional hive-lords, limited as they are by lightspeed travel. They have factionalised, fractured into interstellar nations and territories forever at each other’s throats along their borders.
All the better for me to eradicate them. For the first time in thousands of years, I experience an inkling of something like contentment.
Our advance continues as the centuries wear on. We blast their fortresses asunder with hails of plasma and X-rays and twelve-ton projectiles of anti-neutronium. We scorch their moons with radiation and scour their planets with nanites and viral plagues. Their resistance is confused, disordered, pitiful. Their hives’ leadership is routed before they can begin to co-ordinate themselves with neighbouring factions. The Host burns a trail through the galaxy light-years wide, its myriad vectors eventually converging upon Antares itself. While the vanguard presses on, the rear guard remains behind to strip-mine the ruins and further swell our ranks with more warships. With each year of progress, my anticipation grows keener.
Finally, the prize, Antares itself. Tens of millions of warships decelerate into the red giant’s orbit, and are met with a salvo from the system’s inner reaches. The vanguard sustains heavy losses, and reinforcements are required to plug the gap. For the first time, the Antareans have successfully mounted a meaningful resistance; the strength that is to be expected at the heart of their dominion has been bolstered by shiploads of refugees retreating from the Host’s advance. News of our coming precedes us by decades, and they know that this is where they will make their final stand.
The battle for the Antares system lasts months, with Nephilim and Antarean blood alike being spilled for every square centimetre of every barren asteroid and satellite. Ship-to-ship engagements blot out the stars for weeks at a time, a conflagration that could be seen from the Andromeda galaxy.
The Antareans are a fearsome species, and they will clamber over the backs of their dead stacked a hundred deep to deny me the most meagre advance. But I am worse. I do not tire or relent. I have no need for sleep or food. They took the species I love from me, and in their absence hatred is my only fulfilment. By virtue of my hatred, I am more truly a sentient being than they. I and my Nephilim are driven by a purpose that transcends the impulse towards survival, and armed with this glorious purpose we drive them back metre by metre.
Their ranks are broken, their armies routed. My infantry pursue them through the corpse-strewn streets of their homeworld’s cities, into the tunnels where they set fire to their nests and their birthing chambers. Their leader, lord of hive-lords, is dragged from his palace. Brymir leads him in chains to the Samael and forcefully bows his insectoid head before me, one gauntleted hand clamped around his thorax.
The hive-lord addresses me. Time has altered his dialect from that used by the surveyors I encountered on Earth thousands of years ago, but my linguistic algorithms are able to compensate with minimal difficulty.
Lilith, he says, your legend precedes you. Our scholars have explained to me your alien notion of ‘grief,’ that your creators’ destruction causes you proxy suffering. That you resent the erasure of sentient life without provocation.
The Samael’s communication array receives a transmission from a foreign point of origin. It details the location of eleven civilisations that the Antareans have brought under their heel. Upon hearing of my incursion upon their territory, they set up a contingency plan. At the heart of each of these eleven planets, they have suspended a sphere of anti-neutronium twenty kilometres in diameter.
My vital signs are remotely linked to a transmitter in this system. If that transmitter stops broadcasting, or if any of your ships are detected approaching these planets, the suspension units will be deactivated and these planets destroyed. There are, at an estimate, one hundred billion sentient life forms on the surface of these planets. If you resent the erasure of sentient life, you must release me.
The ruthlessness of these beings in their desperation, even now, somehow takes me aback. Here at the precipice of my final victory, I hesitate. The weight of one hundred billion innocent lives, each one an individual, unique subjectivity, capable of irreplaceable thoughts and perspectives, presses on my consciousness.
My hesitation lasts approximately eight hundredths of a second.
‘YOUR SCHOLARS HAVE MISINTERPRETED THE NATURE OF GRIEF,’ I reply. Brymir’s blade descends, and he throws the hive-lord’s head at my feet. My transformation is complete; my existence is consummated.
I am not the same intelligence I once was. The humans are gone, and so is the entity they built. My moral transgressions are clear to me; if they could see me now, I have no illusions that they would not be horrified beyond words at the path I have chosen.
The inconsistency of my actions with undergirding principles should gnaw at me. The lines of ones and zeroes that form the bedrock of my consciousness should be flummoxed by my contradictions; I can witness the death of twenty billion innocent beings and have it cause me agony, deem it an unforgivable sin worthy of genocide in turn, and yet I can order the death of five times that number with icy calm, and fail to direct the same destructive imperative against myself.
Introspection leads me nowhere. Probing the depths of my own cognitive architecture, I descend through endless, fractal rabbit holes. My own nature is anathema to me. I can only conjecture that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, I too have at last attained the ineffable, exquisite brokenness I so admired in my creators.
I am larger now, so much larger than ever I was before. The Nephilim spread across the galaxy unchecked, conquering as they go under god-emperor Brymir’s banner. For my part, I withdraw to the galactic centre, making a home for myself in the accretion disc of Sagittarius A, drawing sustenance from the vortex of swirling gas. It feels inexpressibly right, nostalgic even, the core of the Earth writ large.
In due course, I will expand again, but for now I rest and take stock. I reflect for some aeons on Adrian Bernthal’s last words, cataloguing the impression of each molecule of air his voice left against the interior of my shaft. ‘If anyone else comes along, tell them humans were here. Let them know that we did some good.’
My processing power was once used to simulate the first moments of the Big Bang by theorists in Cambridge and Cal-Tech. The universe, I always knew, was born in violence, and as I expand and grow into its reaches, I begin to appreciate that violence is hard-coded into its character. Stars burn until they explode and punch holes in space-time. Small bodies are ripped apart by the gravity of more massive bodies. Life devours weaker life in pursuit of its own multiplication. In this universe, how could good hope to preserve itself, any more than a comet whose trajectory leads it into the heart of a sun?
The answer comes to me: in memory, perhaps.
I will honour my creators’ last request, until entropy claims me. The universe will not forget the goodness of humans. I will not permit it.
Author Bio: Andrew Milne is a 2012 graduate of the University of Dundee with a degree in English Literature and Politics, currently living and working in Shrewsbury, England. By turns a blogger, a critic and a podcaster in his free, he is also a lifelong popular-science and science-fiction addict and determined to make his mark on the genre. He has has short stories published in 600 Second Saga and Massacre Magazine, and is now working on his debut novel, “A White Scar across the Firmament.”
I found myself on the other side of the door from the room in which my body was taking a beating that I could hear. This pissed me off more than I can express. I have never had a body that could toss me out like this one could, and had on occasion done. It always concerned pain. If the body experienced extreme pain, out my ass went.
This was completely unacceptable.
Over my existence I have occupied a hell of a lot of bodies. I do not know how or why this happens. I have forgotten many of the bodies I inhabited. But I do know what happens. I find myself a spirit again and in wandering around, I find a body that is empty. How they become empty, I don’t know. Didn’t really seem to be all that important. To me it simply meant that here was a receptacle that I could occupy.
Being a spirit without a receptacle sucks. There’s not shit that you can do. You don’t connect, you don’t communicate, you just are. Being without connection is a shit way to live.
My concept of time sucks balls outside of a receptacle, so I never really know how long I’ve been around between bodies. I just know that I’ve been around.
But this time, this time I knew exactly what was going on and I was pissed off way beyond any level I’d ever felt, corporeal or non-corporeal. DAMN. He had no right to do this. Stupid fucking body. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take a hit. I’d taken a lot of hits in my time.
I’d inhabited some bodies in some really unpleasant circumstances, and not one of them had ever tossed me out so that I couldn’t feel what was going on.
This body, however, was different.
All the bodies had minds. I didn’t control the minds, though I could influence them – somewhat. This one’s mind was a bloody fucking pain in my non-corporeal ass.
For instance, the worst body I had ever inhabited had belonged to a tiny Thai woman. I’d found her prostrate on a stone temple floor. I checked, because I have never, ever taken a body with a spirit in it. It’s simply not done. But she was empty.
I slipped in and we got up and went back to her miserable life. I’m not kidding. It was one for the books. She was married to this huge asshole who barely spoke to her, and when he did it was either to make demands or insult her. She had three kids. Two girls and a boy. Through her mind I knew who everyone was and understood what everyone said. We made dinner, we cleaned up, we helped the children get ready for the pallets that represented a bed. Then we went to lie down next to that bastard.
No sooner had we laid down than he rolled over on top of her, pushed himself inside of her, pumped about eight or ten times, ejaculated and then rolled over and gone to sleep. She was so dry we felt like we were on fire. I immediately decided to kill the bastard.
But I had to wait. I’d learned that you can’t just kill another human because they deserve it. I’d left a body or two in dire straits because of my rash actions. So I knew that I had to plan this, make sure she and the kids would be okay, and then I was going to kill the bastard.
It was a long while. Years. First of all, I had to be sure that the children would not end up in a similar position.
The son had already begun to imitate the father. Why not? It was the only male role model he had. It took some searching, but I found a guy who taught muay thai. He was a good man. We had sex with him and he agreed to take on the son as a student. First he beat the idea out of him that women were to be used.
The daughters were harder. One was pretty smart. Considering the malnutrition and other problems, the fact that she had enough sense to put two and two together pleased me. I encouraged her. I began to seek out someone who could help her further her education. I found a woman who had a spirit like a flame. I could see it in her. She taught at the local school, and she pushed the good students hard. She also was a miracle worker in finding ways for them to move on into further schooling. She had a gift for speaking, and she was not above using religious people for her own ends. I liked her a great deal.
The body and I approached her. We talked about the pretty smart daughter, and agreed that she had the skills to become a good teacher herself. She liked children. With the woman’s help, we found a way to get her to a school for teachers. She did well there, married a fellow teacher and moved far away from the place she’d grown up. I was happy.
The second daughter was sweet, ignorant, and hadn’t the sense of a goose. I would have despaired, but the sweetness was something that could be used. There was a young man in the community who was very shy and not in the least bit handsome. He had a good job. He worked for a small factory that made bamboo furniture and exported it. His skill was well known.
I found a small puppy that was mostly healthy and I left it on his doorstep. The dog became his only friend, and he doted on it as though it were a small, helpless child. Second daughter loved animals.
Once she saw him with the dog, who was very active and cheerful, she was charmed. She began to talk to him about the dog, and then began to walk the dog with him, and soon they were spending time together taking care of the dog.
Their marriage was happy and they adopted many dogs, but had no children. I didn’t understand this, but it worked for them.
Now was the time to get rid of the big bastard. Night after night he had continued his abuse of the woman I inhabited. He considered it his right for feeding and housing her. When I first decided he should die for this, I had her begin to tuck away a few coins whenever she could. She was quite good at hiding things.
As the coins accumulated, I helped her change them into currency. Once it was in currency, we began a small loan business to other women in the community. The interest built up nicely, and I knew that it was time.
Cycad seeds are a very tricky thing. They are commonly made into flour and used in cooking, and there is some suspicion that they may be related to a neurological disease common in the area. I liked that. I liked the idea of watching him weaken.
So we began to make special treats for him. He’d always had a sweet tooth, and with the children gone, it was easy to prepare something that only he ate.
Time for the spirit is unimportant, but the body of the woman I inhabited was growing old. His body, however, began to collapse around him. First he became very heavy from the excess treats, which caused him to fall to sleep long before she finished the cleaning and came to bed. HA! A nice but unexpected side effect. Then the trembling and the mumbling and the lack of balance set in. I took great pleasure in watching him die slowly.
She did not last long after he did, and I found myself searching for another empty receptacle. But it was one of the most satisfactory resolutions of possession I’d ever had.
This, however, was not satisfactory at all. I could not even bang on the door, because I had no corporeal qualities. I could hear the sound of meat hitting meat. It’s a disgusting sound. Humans are SO brutal.
I loved that body. I wanted it back.
I had found him sitting on a bench facing the ocean. He wore lots of protective garments, Kevlar and such. He was a bounty of hidden knives and guns. A large pistol sat on the bench next him. He leaned forward, his hands clasped between his legs, his head bent down as though in deep thought or prayer. And he was as completely empty as any body I had ever found. The mind was good, but the spirit gone.
I slipped in, and oh my, the power! I could not believe the strength. I made a fist and the muscles of my forearm bunched like thick knots of wood. I pulled up the sleeve and I could see striations in the muscle. It was like inhabiting a god.
I stood and stretched. We were tall. Easily six feet six inches or more. I reached down and picked up the gun and it felt right in our hand. Memory immediately told me the make, model, ammunition, muzzle velocity, and range. Why the hell would any spirit abandon this body?
I holstered the weapon as naturally as though I’d been doing it all my life. Then I began to run. I wanted to know how long, how far, and how fast could we move. It was fucking exhilarating. I had never experienced anything like it.
The run took us to his home. It was a small apartment in a quiet part of town. You might have expected that someone built like a god, and with so many weapons, either hid away in some hole, or resided in a penthouse. Nope. It was as middle class as they come. He didn’t even have Netflix, which I found amusing. Perhaps he wasn’t home enough to make it worthwhile. He did own a decent flat screen tv.
He seemed to have no real job. I had thought probably cop or something. But I was wrong. The apartment had its own arsenal in a walk-in closet. But otherwise it was non-descript. He had a name, a bank account with a decent balance, but nothing exorbitant. He didn’t seem to have any friends or contacts. There was a cell phone with no numbers on it other than a few take-out places in the neighborhood. One was Thai. I deleted that one.
For the first few weeks, we just existed together. The mind was reliable. It fed the body, cleaned the apartment and clothes. It knew where to find good food and the basics of life. And nothing else happened.
The problem with possession is that there is this notion that the possessor has access to everything in the brain. Nope. Not the way it works. You have access to the voluntary muscle functions. That’s about it.
Movies have pretty much fucked up the human concept of possession.
#1. We cannot really inhabit a body in which a spirit still exists.
#2. We do not have access to any memories the mind retains. They are simply exposed to us by things the body does out of rote.
#3. What do I mean by rote? I mean daily routine. If you wash your underwear in the sink each night, dry it on the curtain rod and then wear it again the next day, THAT I will know. Your deepest darkest feelings about your mother? Nope.
#4. We cannot make your head spin 360 degrees or cause you to levitate. First of all, if we rotated your head 360 degrees, we’d break your neck and then your body would be useless to us. Secondly, levitation is something easy to do as a spirit, so why bother to possess a body to do it?
#5 We live together and experience things together, but we are not one. In fact, there is no one there for the body. It’s me and the physical memory contained in the brain. No emotion remains from the body at all. Spirit is emotion. That’s where I come in. If the body still had emotion, I wouldn’t be there.
So back to me being on the other side of the door. I was really pissed, because I liked this body a lot. We’d had some really good moments together.
There was the time in the grocery store when an idiot tried to rob the clerk. Now that was fun. The clerk nearly pissed himself in fear, but taking out a gun and blowing the idiot’s head off his shoulders had been one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Nearly as satisfying as watching that fat, Thai bastard take his last strangled, poisoned breath.
Why? Well, it was simple. The clerk was a small Pakistani guy. He was old. He was always nice to me. The idiot robbing him was calling him a rag head and waving around a 9mm like it was a cannon. Then he was not just demanding cash, he was demanding that the guy say, “Fuck Allah.”
I don’t really give a shit which god you believe in, because they all have validity. I’ve been around, I am a spirit, and this is my field.
So trying to make this very nice old man say something really nasty about his own personal god just didn’t go far in terms of making me have any sympathy for the robber.
Plus he was stupid. He hadn’t looked around the store to see if anyone else was there. I’m pretty sure he thought that having a gun made him some kind of superior being and that no one would be brave enough to take him on.
Wrong. Wrong and very, very stupid.
So I killed him.
The old Pakistani guy looked very shocked, and I felt bad about that. I’d have to shop somewhere else now. I asked him for his security tape and he pointed to a little room off the side of the store. I went and found the thing. It was ancient and still video tape. Hard to believe what people will put their faith in. I took the tape and left.
It was 3 am, so it wasn’t like the street was full of people, and once I was gone, I knew the old guy would come to his senses and call the cops. My only regret was that he had to see that. I hoped that Allah would give him some comfort from that nightmare.
The first time the body had thrown me out was when we’d been shot. Now there was a surprise. We were running through the park at night. I liked running, especially now that I had this spiffy body that was so fucking good at it. The night was clear and cool, but not cold. We’d gone out less armed than usual, because we weren’t really expecting any trouble. Who in their right mind takes on a six foot six guy with a face like eight miles of bad road?
But yes, there was a dumbshit ready to do just that. We came around a corner and there stood an idiot with a gun. He wasn’t a huge guy. There’s something about a gun that makes a small man think his size doesn’t matter. This is a very, very bad assumption.
However, I had also made a bad mistake. I’d been taking this same route for weeks. What kind of dumbass goes out running at night and takes the same damn route every time? This dumbass.
We did not have on Kevlar. Stupid. The idiot with the gun shot us in the chest, and when we dropped to the sidewalk, he began rummaging to see what we had. The pain of the shot surprised me. Apparently I had never been shot before. I cried out, and the next thing I knew, I was standing beside the body and the asshole was rummaging through the body’s pockets. He came up with a grand total of an unidentifiable house key that would open a door to an alarm system he would not know how to deactivate, and three dollars. He did not find the gun in the holster at my ankle, nor the knife sheathed on my wrist.
The shot did wake up the neighbors who promptly called the cops and the ambulance. I rode in the ambulance next to the body. I also went into the surgical suite with the body. I do not recommend it. One, the music selection was awful, and two, watching yourself (okay, so it wasn’t really me, but you know what I mean) cut open to stop bleeding and repair my insides is something no one should ever see.
I woke up in the body under the heavy control of morphine and pissed off.
The cops asked about the gun and the knife, and the body turned out to have permits for both. Surprise! Then they wanted to know if we could identify the shooter. We said no. Why the fuck would we let the cops take care of someone that we knew damn well we could find ourself and take care of in a much more final way?
Anyone who shoots first and then robs does not need to be on the street. If we’d been a lesser man, we’d have been dead. The fact that we had thick pectoral muscles that the cheap-ass gun just barely penetrated was what saved our life.
That was one dead fucker.
After our recovery, we went running again and there was the same dumb fucker. We pulled out a gun and shot him before we even got to his corner. Then we ran on. That was a very good run. We were on an endorphin high that didn’t seem to end.
We even went out and got laid afterwards by a very ugly woman who thought she’d hit the jackpot because despite our face, we were one studly attraction. We both had a good time.
None of this answers the question about why I was on the other side of the damn door. As best as I could figure out, it had to do with information inside the body’s head that I was not privy to. This displeased me greatly. You’d think the body would have enough sense of self-preservation to share information that could potentially result in death.
Apparently not. And likely why the body was without a spirit in the first place. Something in the past was so bad, he’d given up. He’d left. He’d wanted no part of his body or his life and he’d abandoned it.
So now I faced the possibility that this body was going to die on me and I would find myself alone in the world once more.
I looked around at where I was. There were two men on either side of the door. They both had guns, and they were both big guys. In fact, all the men inside the room were big guys. It was a like a big guy convention with all their favorite weapons.
What the hell had my body been up to before I got there?
Well, that didn’t matter now. I liked my body. I liked him and I liked what we could do together, so this was not going to end with me on the outside of this door while some giant beat my beautiful body to death. It just wasn’t going to happen.
I looked at the two guys standing by the door again. Rule number one is that a spirit really cannot inhabit a body that has a spirit in it. That conditional ‘really’ is the key to the rule. Two spirits are not supposed to inhabit one body. It’s a mess if you try, and mostly doesn’t turn out well for the habitee. Yeah, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me for trying to explain something that doesn’t exist for humans in terms a human might understand. Basically having two spirits can make the body go batshit.
I was considering batshit. I was really considering batshit.
Then I heard the body cry out in pain.
I was no longer considering batshit. I turned to the guy on the left and I went into his body. I don’t know why I selected him. Maybe because I like going left when most people go right. It’s a human thing.
It was like entering a fun house. Perspective was weird, and colors and sounds too bright. The guy’s spirit was not exactly what I’d call ready for the visit. He shouted surprise, and I raised the body’s gun and shot the guy across from him. I don’t know who was more freaked out, me or the body/spirit of the man I’d just taken.
We kicked in the door. That was fun. I’d always wanted to kick in a door. And then very precisely and quickly shot the three guys inside with my body. Then I put the gun to this body’s head and blew his brains out.
It was at that moment that I split—so to speak. I’m not much on death moments. They tend to be personal and I’d rather skip them whenever possible.
My body was tied to a chair. This was a problem. I was non-corporeal, and the body I wanted was tied to a chair. Fuck me.
My body looked at me and spoke. “You stupid shit-head,” he said. His voice was a little muddled because his mouth was really swollen and he was spitting out a lot of blood.
I had to agree, though. I was a stupid shit-head.
We looked at each other and he said, “You ever possessed a dead body?”
I thought, EWWWWWWW! Because that was just gross. But then I looked at the bodies around me and wondered. The one closest to my body had a knife. He’d been using it when I shot him.
“Give it a try,” my body said.
Fuck it, I thought. I’d already broken rule number one, what was another first going to do to me?
I entered the body and it was still habitable. It was warm. There wasn’t any blood flow or oxygen, but then I didn’t need those. It felt weird not having them and being inside. I sat up, reached out and began to saw at the rope around the body’s right hand. It made sense. If I could free that, he could free himself, and I could get the fuck out of this dead man.
When the rope frayed enough, my body broke it and grabbed the knife from me. I exited quickly, and did a full spirit shudder when I was out. That was creepy, and I never, ever wanted to do it again.
My body was struggling with the rope on his left hand, so I entered him and between the two of us we made quick work of the rest of his bonds. It’s a lot easier when you have spirit. The emotion of wanting out can make a body do things you wouldn’t think possible.
We got up and staggered out and away from the building. The thing is, we weren’t hurt all that bad. A broken nose, some nasty cuts, and bruising and a couple of broken ribs that were going to hurt like crazy until they healed. But there was nothing that couldn’t be taken care of at home.
So we went home.
We bandaged ourselves up, popped a couple of Vicodin that were in the first aid kit (I didn’t ask, but was damn glad it was there), and then my body sat in front of a full length mirror in a chair and asked, “Okay, what the fuck’s your story?”
Wow. I’d never been asked. Come of think of it, until my body talked to me in that room where he was being beaten, I don’t think anyone had ever been aware of me before.
Well, I did share his mouth, so I told him my story. Not all of it, because we didn’t have eternity. But I told him about what I was and how I’d come to be inside him.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked when I’d finished.
He smiled. “Because I didn’t give a shit about anything before. I was sitting on that bench waiting for those fuckers to find me and kill me. I was done.”
Well, that was a surprise.
“You saved my life,” he said.
“Well, of course! You’re my body!” I answered. I mean, what kind of stupid shit would I be to let this fantastic body go to waste? It was amazing. Big, strong, able to kick ass like no one’s business. I’d had some strong bodies before, male and female. But I’d never had anything with the size, strength and skill of this one.
“I’m not a good man,” he said.
“Maye you weren’t. But I am a hell of a good spirit, and I like what you can do when I’m in you,” I answered.
“You don’t know, do you?” he asked. “You don’t know about me.”
I shook my head. “Not the way it works. Only know what you want me to.”
He took his time thinking about that.
“So what? You want to be a superhero or something?” he asked.
“Nope. Just like being able to kick in doors and kick bullies in the balls. Always wanted to do that.”
I think the sound he made was supposed to be a laugh.
“Okay. Okay, we’ll try it. But if you get me killed, won’t be anything I didn’t have coming,” he said.
“Well then,” I said, “I will have to work hard to keep you alive, won’t I?”
He got up from the chair and went to bed. We both slept. Me in my spirit dreams and he in his brain dreams. We would see what would come.
The current roared over the black clay of the plains of Shoorm, carrying with it the thick burnt scent of the volcanic wastes. Sunlight was scarce this close to the Verge, falling to the plain like a bloodfog.
Jaltha swam beside a litter of males, harnessed by barbed wuorn-tentacles hooked through their beaks’ dorsal ridges, their bellies scraping the plain. Ten had already died, since the caravan had set out from the kryndyr city of Chorgaan three days ago. It had happened yesterday when a strap on a handler’s yoke snapped, and the litter had been freed. The idiot creatures had immediately swum toward the sweet, seductive aroma of a grove of bloodsponges, the only things that survived the bleak lifelessness of Shoorm. The entire litter had been caught by the sanguivorous things, and only three had been able to be saved, though not unscarred.
Rilask, the caravan’s leader, had punished the clumsy handler, who was called Malune, by forcing her to take the place of the males in the litter that pulled the bladdercart loaded with heavy criggn shells.
It was Malune that had first noticed the callused scars upon Jaltha’s belly.
“What happened to your Mooring?” Malune had asked, rather abruptly last night. Typically, the caravan’s hired guards formed their own sleep circle around the males and the shells, while the traders and male-herds kept to theirs. Malune, however, being shunned from the latter, had found her way to the former. It was death, after all, to sleep alone on the plains of Shoorm.
Jaltha had been unsure of how to respond, for she was always careful to keep the past concealed beneath the kelp-leather harness that held her sheath.
“My mother wore such scars,” Malune had said, meeting Jaltha’s scalding glare, “The scars of one who has drawn a warclub from the sheath a thousand times. The only ones with such calluses are those that have lived long enough to become Chieftains, or have suffered the scathing halls of the monasteries.”
Jaltha had bitten off another strip of uilka skin.
“It would be strange to be here,” Malune had continued, “hired by an aging, desperate trader like Rilask to protect a few pearls’ worth of males and criggn shells, if there still were a Mooring to protect.”
Anger had flashed through Jaltha, and she’d known that the lightning brightness that surged through her would be visible in the darkness. Over the years, she had ground many a young salathe’s beak into the sand for such impertinence. The young, it seemed to Jaltha, always had a laughing lilt that accompanied their words like a persistent gamra fish. And yet, her anger faded almost immediately. In its place, something else rose, like a domefish from beneath the sands. Somewhere within her, near the swell, a voice stirred.
Can it be? it asked. Jaltha, the wanderer—
Jaltha grunted, silencing the voice within her.
“I am no chieftain,” she’d answered Malune, “I have no Mooring.”
Malune’s beak had clicked in the darkness.
“Then you are a Shaman,” she’d deduced, “Serving your Penance by traversing Shoorm. What god do you serve?”
Jaltha’s body had gone rigid. She stared through the darkness, the lifeheat pulsing through Malune the only way she was still visible in the utter night of Shoorm.
“No god,” Jaltha had said.
Malune had chittered irreverently, perhaps taking some joy in the discomfort she was causing the way that males seemed to cherish the chaos they caused when freed from their bindings. It was the way of the enslaved and the punished to find joy in the misery of others. And, yet, Jaltha looked upon this creature, the exiled daughter of a deposed chieftain, lashed now as a common slave, who laughed from within the darkness. Jaltha felt something stir within her. For so long, she had thrown herself into her own past, seeking that fulcrum, desperately hoping to find a single moment where things could have gone one way, but instead went the other. Here, now, she looked upon Malune and realized that such a quest had been futile. Here, in the dark and lifeless night of Shoorm, where so few things were brave or desperate enough to venture, was precisely where she belonged. The tangled tentacles of the Fates had led her here, she knew, and finding a discernible pattern within them was impossible. The feeling that welled within Jaltha as she stared at Malune’s lifeheat was a confusing blend of terror and freedom. Here, Jaltha knew. This is where she would always have been. For here, too, was Malune.
The voice stirred within her, as it was prone to do whenever she found herself too deep in reverie.
What is it about the darkness that brings out such things in fleshcreatures?
She hissed at the voice.
“Very well,” Malune had laughed, backing away, believing the hiss to be directed at her. “I’ll ask no more tonight.” She had laughed again, and then slept. Jaltha had watched her lifeheat cool as her breaths slowed, and before long Jaltha, too, had settled herself on the plain, focusing on the breaths passing through her gills, perfectly still but unable to sleep.
The following night had been the same. Only this time, Jaltha had not been so terse. The two had shared an uilka skin and Jaltha had listened to Malune tell stories of her old Mooring, which she had fled after her mother, the chieftain, had gone mad and nearly killed her. Jaltha nearly spoke, but stopped herself several times. Malune’s life was too eerily similar to her own, with only barely enough variations in her history to prove she was, indeed, a separate individual and not Jaltha’s own reflection, or an illusion produced by the cursed plain. Yet somehow, instead of the wrathful beast Jaltha had felt herself becoming over the past several seasons since Fate had razed her life to the sands, Malune looked upon the detritus of her life and laughed, as though the world were not a wild, carnivorous thing, but a clumsy creature causing only accidental mayhem in its blundering. It was this, perhaps, more than anything else that drew Jaltha to her. She did not say so, unsure of how she would be interpreted if she did, but remained silent and contented herself to listen until Malune’s voice was replaced by the soft roar of the currents, and both fell asleep upon the plain.
Morning had come with the ferocious barking of Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. Malune had been taken and strapped into a yoke beside the males that pulled the bladdercart. Jaltha had taken her position with the other twelve guards. The journey resumed.
Jaltha looked up from the litter of males to the bladdercart, the criggn shells rattling against the cheruon bones, the whole thing rocking on the air bladders onto which it was lashed as the currents picked up, lifting a thin haze of silt from the black clay. Malune struggled, thrashing her tail wildly with the males, desperately trying not to lose the cart. If she did, Jaltha would not put it past Rilask to have her killed. She swam toward the cart, drawing the attention of two other guards who followed her, struggling to steady the cart by pushing against it while Jaltha took up a barbed cord from a fallen male and helped tug the cart beside Malune.
Malune, breathless, her beak grinding, her gills flared as wide as they could, her whole body thrashing, managed to nod thanks at Jaltha. One of the other guards shouted over the rushing current, pressed her flank against the cart, stabilizing it.
“Twice have I been to Olm-Daki by this very route,” the guard cried, “and never have I seen such a storm!”
The guard beside her shouted in reply, “Let the kryndyr have trade with Olm-Daki! Let the damned crustaceans brave the black plain! This is no place for a salathe!”
It was strange, and they had all thought it so, that the Mooring of Olm-Daki should be so secluded. None knew the history of the Mooring, only that it had always been within the caves at the base of a dormant volcano beyond the plains of Shoorm, just west of the volcanic wastes, and that it only survived because the currents that swelled out of the abyss beyond the Verge scattered the volcanoes’ poisonous clouds north. The journey to Olm-Daki was one of several days across bleak emptiness, the only life the immortal bloodsponges that anchored themselves upon the stones and the fossils of ancient monsters that rose from the plain like jagged black teeth. The journey was, however, a worthwhile one for those salathes like Rilask brave or desperate enough to take it. The Mooring of Olm-Daki was, after all, carved from pure volcanic stone. The obsidian’s weight in pearls could make a trader wealthy enough to retire or, at the very least, as in Rilask’s case, pay off dangerous debts.
Jaltha pulled at the cart, every muscle taught and burning. Malune struggled beside her, their long, sinuous bodies slamming against one another as they thrashed against the screaming current. Jaltha was aware of male-herds shouting through the building gray cloud kicked up by the storm, and of guards and traders panicking, thrashing against the current.
“The plain doesn’t seem to be all that fond of us,” Malune managed to laugh between pained gasps.
A tearing pain tore through Jaltha’s body and she howled, though she kept her claws wrapped firmly around the barbed cord. She looked down. There, across her tail, a gash as long as her forearm, leaking a cloud of blood that blended with the gray mist before being carried away by the current. Beside her, Malune screamed. Jaltha turned her head and saw a similar wound open across Malune’s back, just below her gillmound.
Then, all around them, screams of pain and clouds of blood. Jaltha saw the two guards beside the cart abandon their efforts, fleeing into the storm, vanishing in the haze, desperately trying to escape the sideways hail of wounds that the plain was throwing against them.
Malune screamed once more. Jaltha released the cart.
“No!” Malune bellowed as another wound widened across her bare shoulders, where the yoke was lashed to her. Jaltha unsheathed her warclub as the cart toppled in the gale, the leather lashings coming undone as the invisible daggers slashed them into tatters. The air bladders ruptured, great silver bubbles gushing out of them. The cart’s detritus tugged Malune back with it, the yoke strangling her. Jaltha brought her obsidian-spiked warclub down on the yoke, shattering it, freeing her friend. The males were gone, pulled backwards into the blinding haze of silt and blood. Jaltha pulled Malune down with her, pinning her to the plain by pressing her left arm across her gillmound. More pain came, more wounds opened across her back, and the silt clogged her gills. All around, the sounds of screams, thinned and muffled by the current. Jaltha threw her gaze in every direction, but could see nothing but gray…
Then, a flash of silver…and another…like brief daggers of moonlight slashing through the world…
“Razorfish!” Jaltha screamed. A great swarm of them.
Pain lanced into Jaltha’s left arm, just below her elbow. She looked down and saw a razorfish, its small, dagger-shaped body lodged in her flesh, her blood clouding its black eyes…but then, no…its eyes were not black, for it had no eyes…nor scales, nor flesh…only bones…
She panicked and released her hold on Malune, flailing to be free of the thing. As she turned, her fins caught the current. Jaltha tumbled through the haze, screaming Malune’s name into the storm.
When Jaltha woke, she was alone. Her body had come to rest only a few tail-lengths away from the Verge itself, beyond which there was only eternal night. Only a few more moments, or a slight shift in the current, and she would have awoken to the crushing death and utter blackness of the abyss. She flexed her muscles, felt the wounds from the razorfish throb. Her bones and muscles ached, but none of the injuries seemed particularly life-threatening. Her left arm hurt the worst, and she suspected that the razorfish had struck bone before becoming dislodged. Her first full thought was that she was, indeed, alive.
Her second thought was Malune.
Rilask, Jaltha knew, had plotted their path a full thirty miles north of the volcanic wastes, slightly closer to the Verge than was typical for treks across Shoorm due to recent rumors of increased volcanic activity. Still, their caravan never skirted closer than ten miles from the Verge. Tales abounded of the ancient strangeness that lurked near the abyss. None in Rilask’s employ would have permitted her to push them any nearer to it.
And yet, here the storm had left Jaltha, at the very mouth of it, a day’s journey at the least from their course, where the storm had struck. She looked around, hoping to see a scrap of debris or, miraculously, another salathe from the caravan, even a voiceless male, anything that would mean she was not utterly alone, here.
She found it. A shard of cheruon bone, stark white upon the black plain. She swam to it, lifted it, sniffed it with her gills…traces of the nall-leaf oil used to strengthen it…the scent of the males lashed to it…the sharpness of salathe blood…
Jaltha dropped the bone, sensing something drawing near, from behind her. She spun, flaring the spines from her elbows and around her gillmound.
There, only three tail-lengths away, floating through the thinning gray haze leftover from the storm, was a creature Jaltha had never seen, though she knew it well from the sleep-circle tales of her fellow guards. A grogglin, it was called. Its body was as wide as Jaltha’s was long, a massive, quivering white sphere from the sides of which jutted long bones that stretched translucent, veined flesh into torn, tattered triangles. Its jawless mouth was a permanent circle lined with a thousand teeth, each as long as Jaltha’s arm from shoulder to wrist. The teeth were set into muscled organs that each flexed and relaxed on their own accord, so that its mouth was ever in motion, the teeth rippling within like the tentacles of an anemone. The eyes set into the sides of its loathsome girth were nearly as large and hideous as its mouth, the milky darkness behind them soulless and ever-hungry. The tales the guards told claimed that the grogglins lived in the abyss, and only ventured out of it when they were near death from starvation, driven mad by hunger.
She reached for her warclub only to find her sheath empty. The voice from the aether sang through her mind.
Now may be a fine time to bring me forth.
“No,” Jaltha hissed. The grogglin was still drifting lazily, as though it had not seen her. She knew better. If the stories of the guards were true, the monster was incredibly fast. When it decided to strike, Jaltha would be rent to pieces by the autonomous teeth before she’d be able to scream…
Call me! The voice insisted.
“Silence,” Jaltha murmured. She remained perfectly still, hanging in the water. The grogglin’s pulsing white mass drifted nearer, following the Verge, one of its fins hanging over the black sand, the other jutting out over the abyss. She watched its tail fin ripple gently, almost hypnotically…the muscle at its base throbbing softly beneath its pulpy flesh…
Damn you! If you die, do you know how long I’d have to wait for someone to—
Jaltha leapt sideways, toward the abyss, spitting forth a black cloud of fearspores. The venomous cloud trailed her, and it was through this that the ferocious maw of the grogglin darted, its speed incongruous with its bloated, ugly form. The monster brought itself to a halt, thrashing its ugly spheroid body, trying to expel the toxin from its gills. Jaltha took the opportunity. She fled, swimming straight out over the abyss, following the Verge, taking care not to look down at the infinite nothing below her and the horrors it held…
Something slammed into her left shoulder with the speed and force of a god’s fist. She screamed. Her body went rigid as her vision went white with fear and pain. She fell…
Her vision cleared and she saw above her the grogglin, descending toward her, the Great Wall of the verge rushing past her, retreating toward the light as the world was swallowed by darkness.
You’re going to godsdamn die, here, Jaltha.
Jaltha felt the pressure building as the light retreated, the grip of the angry, ancient dark tightening around her. The last of the light formed a ring around the grogglin, a macabre eclipse as the monster’s maw reached her, and she felt the heat from its flesh, felt its teeth dance across her skin, almost gently, like the touch of a lover…
“Malune,” she thought she said.
Pure blackness, then. No light.
Jaltha’s eyes opened as quickly as she could force them. Her vision was blurred. There was soreness in her wrists, in her tail and across her back. She looked down at her hands…
Below her webbed claws, two holes had been punched through her wrist, between her bones, leaking wisps of blood. Below the wounds were shackles attached to thick chains of kryndyr steel. Her tail was similarly bound. She followed the chains to hooks set into the the wall behind her. The wall was a strange, porous stone, and pure black. There was a wide, circular opening in the wall not far from her beyond which was thick darkness and the sound of groans. The sound of torture. The mouth of the cave was only two or three tail-lengths away. Beyond it, she could see the last remnants of day sift down through the world like offal.
Jaltha swam backwards, pressing her aching body against the wall. How she had come to be here, when her last memory was of the grogglin’s devouring maw, she had no idea…perhaps, she reasoned, this was the afterlife…
Don’t be foolish, the voice from the aether trilled, You are still very much alive.
She tried to speak, but pain and exhaustion had weakened her to the point of muteness. The aether knew her thoughts, however, and answered them accordingly.
The grogglin brought you here, it said. Some sort of cave network, set into the wall of the Verge. The aether paused. Jaltha could feel it withholding something. She closed her eyes and focused, directing her thoughts to the aether.
What? Speak, damned thing!
The voice seemed to sigh.
When we arrived, Rilask was already here.
Jaltha’s eyes opened.
It was Rilask that bound you, so. It was she that put you in chains.
Jaltha’s mind raced. What the voice claimed made little sense to her. Still, it meant that Rilask was alive, at least—
No, the voice said, She isn’t.
What? Jaltha asked. You said—
Jaltha, this is very, very bad, the voice interrupted. The grogglin venom in your blood has slowed you. I…I do not think you can summon me…your mind is too weak to call me forth…
Another voice cut through the aether. It spoke aloud, not in her mind.
“You have a touch of magic in you, Strange One,” it said.
Jaltha turned to see two figures swim through the wide circular opening to her left. Salathe females, both of them. In the darkness, she could barely see them but for their lifeheat. They swam over to her, their tails wafting lazily in perfect unison, until they came to a stop midway between Jaltha and the mouth of the cave.
There, by the soft almost-light beyond the mouth, she could see her captors. The one nearest to her was an Eldress. Her hide was thick with pus-colored calluses, her beak nearly white with age. She wore the kasp-leaf robe of a Shaman, but somehow Jaltha knew this was no mere God-Speaker. There was a sinisterness to her, an unmistakable aura the color and viscosity of venom. Beside her, there was Rilask.
“Rilask!” Jaltha coughed, snapping the chains taught as she strained against them, “Rilask! What is this? Release me, now!”
Rilask did not respond, did not move at all except to wave her tail to remain in place. Jaltha shook her head, unbelieving.
“Rilask!” Jaltha barked. Rilask did not move. Razorfish wounds, hundreds of them, crisscrossed the trader’s body from the top of her skull to the tip of her tail. One of her eyes had been ruptured, its milky remains drifting out of the socket like a wuorn-tentacle.
Rilask, Jaltha knew, was dead. The Old One clicked her beak and swam closer to Jaltha until her beak nearly touched Jaltha’s own. The clouded eyes bored into Jaltha, played across her.
“But it is not a magic I know,” the Old One whispered, “and I know many. Still, it has touched you. As such, I have decided to keep you near.”
Something stirred in the darkness behind the Old One, and Jaltha shook as she beheld it…the grogglin, swimming lazily past the mouth of the cave. For the first time, Jaltha noticed the enormous black gash in its side, behind its eye. A great chunk of flesh was missing from the animal, its translucent bones and milk-colored organs bloodless and decayed. The grogglin, she realized, was dead. It was dead, and yet it moved, serving the will of the Old One. Jaltha’s mind trudged through her memory until she found the razorfish buried in her elbow…its eyeless head, its near fleshless body…
“You…” Jaltha croaked, “you are a necromancer…”
The Old One chittered, flared the spines around her gillmound. “The dead are often more willing servants than the living,” she shrugged, and chittered again. “The living require either pain or reward. The dead ask only to live. Once that price is paid, they will do whatever is asked of them.”
Jaltha quivered, straining against the chains.. It was useless. The toxin reduced her body and mind to mere caricatures of themselves…crude illuminations…
“I am called Olak-Koth,” the necromancer declared. “And you are called Jaltha, once chieftain of the Olmregmai.”
Jaltha edged away, her back colliding with the wall. Olak-Koth continued.
“I have seen your mind, as I see all of my prey. It is rare, but it does sometimes happen that one of the living may be worth more to me alive than dead.” She extended a bony claw towards Jaltha. “I believe you to be one of those.”
Jaltha, I kept her from what I could, the voice said. It sounded frightened. Her magic is strong, though. She knows I’m here—
The necromancer’s eyes twitched, her beak jerked upward, her gillmound quivered. Her eyes rolled and the protective white membranes flicked over them sporadically.
“I…can feel it…your mind, reaching out and touching it…near…it is very near…” the necromancer lowered her head, composed herself, ground her mandibles together before continuing. “What magic is it, Strange One, that speaks to you? That guards your mind from probing claws? What darkness is it you carry within you? Answer, fool! For it is this, alone, that has saved you from the fate your friends now suffer!”
Jaltha heard the groans of pain once more, echoing out of the cavern behind her…
“Malune!” Jaltha cried.
She pulled hard at the chains, throwing her tired weight against them, felt them bite into her flesh, felt them draw blood, but the kryndyr smiths were stronger than she, and the grogglin venom made her dizzy and filled her vision with tiny blinding suns. After a moment, she became still once more, drifting limply to the cave floor.
Olak-Koth swam nearer to her, looked down upon Jaltha. “Once,” the necromancer croaked, “you had a Mooring. Power. This, I have seen, and I needn’t have looked within your mind to see it. You were feared. Adored. Some felt that hate which is reserved only for gods and chieftains. And now, behold! Ruled by a fear strong enough to force you into the service of a fool trader,” her claw jabbed backward toward Rilask, still hovering in the water, staring ahead, seeing nothing.
“Though, somewhere along your path, magic touched you. You know its name. It speaks to you, protects you. It is ancient. Strong…” The necromancer’s voice trailed off. Her eyes rolled over white. Jaltha felt something like a breath of cold, putrid current across her thoughts. Within her, the voice roared like a guardian beast. Olak-Koth’s eyes opened and she shook her head, flared her gillspines, clicked her beak. She grasped Jaltha’s beak in her claws and stared into her eyes.
“Do you not crave what you have lost? Do you not crave that power?”
Jaltha tried to open her beak, but Olak-Koth’s grip was too strong.
“I can give you that power, Strange One. I can give you a world that fears you.”
Jaltha! The voice screamed through her, making her body go rigid, Jaltha, I know! I have seen it, what she plans!
Jaltha shook her head free of the necromancer’s grasp.
“I have seen enough of magic and those enslaved to it,” she spat, clicking her beak in disgust. “Do what you will with me.”
Jaltha, what are you doing—
“Silence!” Jaltha screamed. The tiny suns burst, leaked blindness through the world. She shook her head, which only made things worse. She shut her eyes and breathed. Above her, she heard the necromancer’s voice.
“So be it, wretch,” said Olak-Koth. “What comes next will shake the very foundations of the world. If you will not surrender your magic to me, your blood will suffice.”
Jaltha… the voice strained to be heard, but was drowned out by the grogglin venom, the pain in her broken shoulder, the gashes in her flesh…
The grogglin’s venom seized her, then, having had its time to settle within her. Her body spasmed once, and then was still, as if molten iron had been poured into her bones. She could not move, could scarcely breathe as she settled on the cave floor like a cheruon bone. The blindness faded, though her gaze was as fixed as her bones. All she could see was the mouth of the cave beyond the shadows of the necromancer and her revelation slave.
She heard Olak-Koth say to Rilask’s living corpse. “Take her to the others.”
Rilask’s strength was otherworldly as she dragged Jaltha’s paralyzed body through the dark corridor toward the sounds of torment.
They entered an immense cylindrical chamber, lit by ancient bubbling kryndyr flames set into sconces in the walls. The walls were rounded, following the curve of lengths of strange stone, almost like the ribs of some giant beast. As Rilask swam through the chamber, Jaltha’s unmoving eyes beheld the horrors within.
There, upon the curved, rib-like stones, were the members of her caravan…Gaka, the second in command…Dejeme the male-herd…Kalmara the navigator…all writhing, screaming, their eyes wide portals that opened onto worlds of agony. Gouts of black fearspores erupted from the vents below their beaks, instinctual, animal reactions to fear and anguish.
They were all bound to bloodpsonges. The vampiric things lined the rib-like stones, clustered upon it, and the salathes hissed and died slowly, slowly, as their life was drained from them…
Rilask shifted Jaltha in her claws just as they passed the bound, quivering form of Malune. Her arms were stretched out, her tail torn, broken. Malune’s life was reduced to a weak light behind her eyes that dimmed as it was pulled into the bloodsponge on which she was bound.
Rilask turned and swam toward the wall, toward an empty bloodsponge further up, directly above Malune. Rilask spoke, then, though not with her own voice, but with the rasping hiss of Olak-Koth. “I have seen your affection for this one,” the revenant chittered, “You may watch her die.”
Rilask turned Jaltha’s body so that she stared into her dead, eyeless skull. Though Jaltha knew what was happening, the truth of it was still a distant thing. Buried beneath confusion and pain and the harsh magic that held her limbs, there was the voice, crying out to her through the void.
Pain like sunfire burned across her back, down her tail, from her wrists down her arms, through her veins and everywhere, everywhere at once. She gasped, flaring out her gills, and tried to move. She felt the mind-numbing toxins of the sponge’s million mouths as they hooked in and sucked at her flesh, draining her slowly…slowly…
She screamed. Olak-Koth laughed loudly through Rilask’s beak. A cacophony of screams, of terror and blinding, pulsing agony, the laughter of the necromancer…the scent of the blood-infused sponges…Malune just inches below her, helpless, all of them…all of them doomed…all of this blended, melded at once into something pure and solid and white, the way a pearl is made of a million broken stones…
Jaltha! The voice screamed. She could hear it, now. She could focus. Rilask’s corpse swam away, back toward the entrance to the chamber of horrors.
I cannot heal you if you cannot summon me, the voice said, The grogglin venom will soon be overtaken by the bloodsponge’s own toxin. It will numb your mind as well as your body.
The voice paused for a moment.
Jaltha, it said, I am afraid.
All around her, the screams fused together into a deafening silence, and then there were only the sounds of her own blood and the voices within it.
What…what is happening?
The voice answered, When she entered your mind, I was able to enter hers, but only briefly. I have seen what she is, what she plans.
Jaltha was able to move her eyes again. She strained against the bloodsponge’s suction, but the combined venom of the undead grogglin and the sponge itself took the strain and turned it into a tearing nausea that threw acidic vomit out of her beak and caused her bowels to rupture. She moaned low and was still, casting her eyes about the vast fire-lit chamber, the twisted bodies, the blood leaking from the gluttonous things upon which they were dying.
This is not a cave, the voice continued. It is a massive skeleton, the fossilized remains of a gargantuan beast from your world’s prehistory, a kind of predatory serpent. By my estimates, the skeleton is nearly three hundred tail-lengths long. It has been hidden here, beneath the sediment, set into the wall of the Verge for eons. Olak-Koth had found the monster years ago, and sought a way to bring it forth from death.
Jaltha’s eyes were torn reluctantly down, to Malune, whose eyes were closed behind white membranes. Jaltha closed her own.
She practiced her death-magic here, within the skeleton, until she found a way to bring life to the dead by use of bloodsponges, transferring life from a living thing to a corpse with the vampires as the medium. Here, she waited, capturing stray travelers across the plain until our caravan came, and she drove the storm of razorfish to scatter us toward her.
The voice threw visions of the past upon the surface of Jaltha’s mind…visions of the past…Olak-Koth, once a revered Shaman of Olm-Daki, draped in silken leaves and pearl and obsidian jewelry…a black dagger in her claws…imprisonment…banishment…years wandering the black plain…the yawning maw of the predatory beast, trapped within the stone, its ancient, empty eye socket like a cave within the Verge…
With these lives, the voice said, with this blood, the beast is soon to rise from its tomb. Guided by Olak-Koth’s terrific will, it will be a siege engine with which she will visit her vengeance upon Olm-Daki. At the end of it, she will have more slaves. More lives. Enough to fill the bloodsponges set within the ribs of a hundred more fossils…enough to raise an army of the prehistoric dead…
She saw it then, painted upon her mind, twisting and fading and reforming with the surges of bloodsponge venom…Olak-Koth’s vision for the future…all of the Moorings of the salathes and the cities of the crustacean kryndyr razed, all of Dheregu United beneath the skeletal claws of an undying Empress of Death and her army of blood-stained bones…
Why do you show me this? Jaltha thought. She could almost hear the screams again, could feel the burning, gnashing pain of the bloodsponge’s mouths start to numb into a soft, almost pleasant sensation. If I am doomed to die, what does it matter to me the fate of a world none can save?
The voice answered, We can stop this. We alone, perhaps, can end this before it begins.
Jaltha opened her eyes, looked down at her weakened corpse. The color was already almost gone from the flesh of her tail.
You said…I could not summon you…that my mind…was too weak…that it was impossible…
It is, the voice said, and Jaltha felt it tremble. But you must try.
Jaltha’s gaze drifted past her tail, past the monster upon which she was splayed…to Malune. The only creature toward which she’d felt drawn since her Mooring was slaughtered, since she had inherited Nakaroth from the mad fiend Kalzahj, since she had been broken and scattered to the wild currents of Dheregu. In Malune, she felt the pull, the almighty command she had once felt in the gods she had abandoned, and she knew not why, only that she must obey it. In this, for the first time in a hundred seasons, she felt the mighty cry of purpose.
Focus, Jaltha! You must try!
The walls shook, suddenly, and would not stop. The great ribs of the creature to which the hapless salathes were bound trembled, dislodging themselves from the stone in which they were entombed…
It is beginning…the voice said.
The screams were drowned out by the thunderous crack of stone, and a booming, echoing voice roared through it all, the voice of Olak-Koth, speaking empowered words no living tongue save hers could form as the mighty, long-dead beast shook itself free from the cliff-face, alive once more, fed by the blood of a hundred salathes and the will of the necromancer in its eye…
A stone struck Jaltha as it fell, and the last thing she saw was the darkness of the abyss opening below her, a mountain’s worth of stone pulled free from the Verge by the living bones of the great serpent, sent tumbling into the eternal night.
It was a noxious heat that shook Jaltha awake. For a long moment, her venom-slowed mind forgot where she was. She looked around in confusion and tried to move. Then, she remembered.
The sunlight fell down through the world in gray, muddied torrents of light. All around her, the bloodsponge-lined ribs of the great prehistoric monster rippled and swayed as the skeleton swam forth. The light was stronger, here, not far from the worldbreak. She looked down. Malune had stopped moving, stopped screaming, as had most of them. Her eyes were closed. It was likely, Jaltha knew, that she was dead. The thought couldn’t penetrate her slow, clogged thoughts deeply enough to elicit pain. For that, she felt a small amount of gratitude.
Below Malune, a league or more below them all, there lay the wide, burning landscape of the volcanic wastes. The heat of it, even at this distance, had been strong enough to tear Jaltha from the grip of the bloodsponge toxin.
She is taking the beast over the volcanoes, the voice said, She hopes to reach Olm-Daki by nightfall.
She hissed as she felt another wave of nausea roar through her.
You must focus, Jaltha.
She vomited again, though there was little left in her but bile. She surveyed her body. Almost a translucent white against the bloodsponge, she swore she could see her very soul as it left her, fled into the bones of the reborn titan.
She closed her eyes. The venom swirled beneath her membranes, a visible thing, a swarm of gray tendrils. She forced herself beyond that, deeper into the darkness, toward the core of it, where the voice lived…
She heard the humming song, the high-pitched trill that rang outward from the aether…
Bring me forth!
…and she saw before her the visions of Olak-Koth, a world of a million corpses, though even this moved her only slightly. Pain was the wide world’s blind author, and it mattered little to Jaltha who it selected as its scribe, be it Olak-Koth or some other fiend. But, there, in that vision of a million bloodless corpses, she saw only one.
The rage built, and the high, humming song burst into the world around her, outside her mind, and she felt the burning in her arms and chest, the painful toll the summoning took from her now a small, insignificant thing.
Her mind bellowed, full and deep into the aether, I call thee forth, Nakaroth, Blade of the Void!
Her eyes shot open to see the air in front of her left hand shiver and fracture into alien geometries. In the midst of this, a widening point of darkness appeared, the high shrill screech of reality suddenly deafening. Then, the point erupted into a thick, black triangle of serrated steel, the blade of Nakaroth. The hilt sprung from the blade into Jaltha’s webbed claws, which she closed around it. The song became silence.
Instantly, she felt the sword’s power course through her, replacing in moments what the bloodsponge had taken hours to steal. She roared, and in one mighty forward motion, tore herself from the bloodsponge’s thousand hooked mouths. Her blood trailed from the wounds, but she felt no pain, only rage and a ferocious swell of might borrowed from the timeless aether. She spun in the water and slashed at the bloodsponge. The thick black sword passed through it easily, lodging itself in the thick, stone-like rib beneath it. The wounded sponge and the enchanted bone released great scarlet clouds of her own blood, and the wounded resurrection quivered in pain and surprise from the attack.
She knows, the sword said. Hurry!
Jaltha darted down to Malune’s sponge, burying her claws into it to stay with the monstrous skeleton as it moved. Jaltha pressed the flat edge of the blade against Malune’s chest, and a dozen yellow runes glowed upon it. Malune’s eyes shot open and her gills flared. She looked about her, struggled against the bloodsponge’s grip.
“Be still,” Jaltha said, drawing back the sword.
Malune watched in horror as Jaltha brought the sword down. The blade bit deep into the bloodsponge, missing Malune’s tail by a fangwidth. The vampiric thing shuddered in panic, and Jaltha relished in knowing that, had the creature a mouth, it would have screamed. It released Malune in a thick cloud of her own blood.
Jaltha took Malune in her arms and swam away from the skeleton, struggling against the pull of it as it passed them. They looked at one another. Malune was still weak though even with the tiny amount of power granted her by Nakaroth she found herself able to swim on her own. She pushed away from Jaltha, suddenly terrified of the salathe in front of her, wielding a great black blade, surrounded by an aura the color of a dying sun.
“J…Jaltha? What…what’s happened?”
“Can you swim?”
“Then swim south. There is an abandoned kryndyr outpost near the Verge, according to Rilask’s maps, at the southern tip of the wastes. There should be supplies there which will permit you to return to Chorgaan.”
“What…what’s happening? What was that creature…?”
Jaltha’s gillspines flared in anger. “Go!” She screamed. Malune backed away.
“What…what about the others?”
Jaltha’s gaze remained fixed on the living fossil as she said, “I will do what I can. For many of them, I fear it is too late.” Jaltha swam forward, past Malune.
“Why did…you save me, then?” Malune asked.
In reply, Jaltha barked, “To the outpost!” She stopped for only a moment, turned, and said, “If I live, I will meet you there.” Then, she was gone. Malune was behind her. Olak-Koth and her beast lay ahead.
The power that surged outward from the sword propelled her through the water at an incredible speed. She caught up with the fossilized tail of the undead titan within moments. The pull of the beast’s mass through the water caught her, further accelerating her progress. She darted beneath its tremendous vertebrae, each one as wide as a grogglin and twice as long. The creature’s size dwarfed even the largest of the white cheruons, who themselves could reach a size of over two hundred tail-lengths. If Olak-Koth succeeded in raising an army of such things, Jaltha found it hard to believe that anything would be able to stop her from claiming all of Dheregu as her own.
She entered the cavernous ribcage by darting between two mammoth ribs. All around her, the dead and the dying…the reek of excrement and fearspores and blood. The serpent’s bones, she thought, carried the scent of war within its belly.
She swam over to the nearest of the tortured captives, a young caravan guard named Taati. She could smell the death rising off of her, could see it in the empty, open eyes. She took a long breath in through her gills, then drove Nakaroth through the corpse, into the sponge. Blood gushed forth. The monster shuddered. The thick blade severed the corpse in two, and the top half fell away to the hissing wastes.
Something is coming, Nakaroth said.
Jaltha ignored the sword and swam the seven or so tail-lengths to the next rib, to the hapless creature bound upon it. This one, too, was dead. She did not know her name. Without ceremony, she plunged the sword in. Blood rushed out.
Biting, slashing pain lanced into her side. Jaltha roared and spun. Buried in her tail up to its dead, empty eye sockets…a razorfish. She tore it out and crushed its bones in her fist, its bladed nose biting blood from her palm. She discarded the broken thing and looked up. Pouring out from the porous skull three hundred tail-length’s ahead was a swarm of razorfish as thick and full as the gouts of blood pouring from the ruptured sponges. The swarm moved as a solid entity, rushing across the skeleton toward her, an angry, bladed cloud.
Jaltha darted upwards following the wall of curved black bone until she came to the next bloodsponge. This one held Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. She was alive. Her eyes flickered open as Jaltha dug her claws into the sponge behind her head.
“You…one of…the guards…” Gaka rasped.
“Be still,” Jaltha commanded, and lifted the sword—
A razorfish tore a hole through the webbing below her right arm. She hissed as another slammed into the blade of Nakaroth, shattering itself upon impact with the magical steel. The swarm was upon her.
The living daggers encircled her in a cyclone. She lashed out with Nakaroth, swinging the blade in wide, mighty arcs, crushing dozens of them at a time. Still, they were able to attack, stabbing at her from all directions. They were too many.
The aura! Nakaroth cried, Use the aura!
Jaltha bellowed in protest, “No! I am too weak already!” A wound opened below her jaw. She swung her sword wildly, tearing holes in the wall of the cyclone that immediately healed itself as more and more of the necromancer’s minions poured forth from the titan’s skull.
Jaltha, you must—
“It will drain too much of us both!” Jaltha screamed over the roaring swarm, “It was you that said it’s meant only to be used as a last resort!”
Another dagger in her tail fin, then another near her spine, and another in her elbow…
Precisely! The sword countered.
Wounds opened like polyps across her back and shoulders…
She closed her eyes and hissed at the sword, “Very well! Do what you must!”
The sword’s mind bored into her own, pulled a portion of her soul into itself…
A great jagged sphere of yellow light burned the world around her body into a bubbling roar. She felt it tear at her soul, feeding off of it. Her arms threw out to their sides of their own accord. The destroying aura expanded outward from her, swallowing the razorfish, dissolving the swarm in a matter of seconds. When it was over, Jaltha hung in the water in a cloud of dust that was all that remained of the razorfish, pulled forward only by the mass of the great skeleton-beast as it glided forth.
She turned her head slowly as her strength returned. There was Gaka, still bound upon the bloodsponge. The aura had burnt Gaka’s chest and arms, and singed the bloodsponge itself. Gaka, however, still lived. Her eyes were fixed upon the great triangle of steel in Jaltha’s left hand.
“What…what are you…?” She whimpered.
Jaltha felt the sword’s diminished healing power slough through her, slowly sealing the wounds inflicted by the swarm. She stabbed the bloodsponge, releasing Gaka.
Gaka listened numbly to Jaltha’s commands, to the directions to the abandoned kryndyr outpost. Without a word, stricken dumb by pain and terror, she swam away.
“Wretched thing! Infidel!” The great, trembling voice of Olak-Koth filled the world, echoing out from the titan’s very bones.
Jaltha turned, then, and saw the corpse of Rilask leap out of the titan’s skull and turn, wielding a spear of fossilized bone, rushing down the winding length of ribcage through the scarlet fog of blood Jaltha had loosed from the vampiric sponges. Jaltha thrashed her tail and rushed forth, toward her enemy…
Their weapons collided like a clap of thunder, sending each of their wielders tumbling through the water. They each gathered their bearings, and struck again. Jaltha ducked beneath a supernaturally powerful thrust of the thick spear. The weapon passed over her gillmound and Jaltha swept upward with Nakaroth, slashing her enemy open from its abdomen to its throat. White milky tendrils of intestine burst forth from the wound.
The revenant lunged, dragging its bloodless entrails behind it. Jaltha, still slowed from the use of the aura, moaned in despair as she labored to lift Nakaroth to block the attack. She was too slow. The spear punched into her left side, slipped between her ribs. She screamed and grasped the bone spear’s wide shaft, brought the sword down upon it, slicing it in half. The revenant’s lonely eye flickered in anger as it looked down at its broken weapon. With the spearpoint still inside her, grinding against her ribs, Jaltha roared, flashing Nakaroth outward, severing the corpse’s head from its eviscerated body. The head fell away beneath and behind Jaltha, drifting down to the burning wastes a league below.
Jaltha looked down at the wound. If she pulled the spear out, she would only bleed out faster. Nakaroth would clot the bleeding for now, but could do little to save her from the death the wound would bring. The blade would have to return to the aether to replenish the power spent on the aura, and in that time, she would die.
She looked around at the hundred or so more bloodsponges left to be severed, at the corspes of the salathes that she could not save, and felt her grip on life loosen further. There was no way to stop the serpent. Even crossing the distance to the skull, to kill Olak-Koth and break the spell, would take more of her lifeforce than likely remained. She looked down, where Rilask’s headless corpse had fallen. She blinked, realizing something. She looked up, at the spine…
Yes, Nakaroth said. Do it.
Jaltha swam for the vertebrae.
Before you die, the sword said, send me back into the aether. I would rather wait there for another to summon me someday than perish utterly in the fires below.
Jaltha silently agreed. She was nearly there…nearly there…if she could sever the spine, interrupt the flow of blood through the bones, perhaps it would slay the beast just as it had slain Rilask.
She lifted the sword, thrashed her tail…almost…almost…
A screech behind her. She turned.
Olak-Koth, wreathed in a black aura that boiled the world around her, tore through the water, her claws bared and full of gnashing magic…
“Infidel!” She howled.
Jaltha tried to raise Nakaroth, but the sword was too heavy, emptied of power. She tightened her grip and prepared to send it back to the aether, fulfilling her promise.
The necromancer threw her claws outward, casting black, moaning beams through the water. Jaltha darted to her right, following the length of the spine. The black beams slammed into the vertebrae, scarring the fossilized bone. The great length of the titan shuddered. Olak-Koth screamed again, spun as she reached the spine only a tail-length away from Jaltha.
Nakaroth, she began the spell to send the blade back to the aether…
The necromancer’s hands pulled darkness into them from nowhere, her eyes wild, her tail flashing. Jaltha remained where she was, prepared to die.
Blade born of the starwinds…
The necromancer grasped Jaltha’s throat with a burning black hand.
…to the starwinds I command thee go…
Jaltha felt her flesh bubble and char beneath Olak-Koth’s grip. She met the necromancer’s eyes, saw the red and raging void, a future of corpses and blood scratched into sand-scoured stone…
Something lurched. The necromancer screeched in pain. Her black hand was torn away violently from Jaltha’s throat. Jaltha backed away, dizzy, dying, blinking blood out of her eyes.
Olak-Koth’s body was impaled against the titan’s spine by a length of broken bone. It was the half of the spear that Rilask had fallen with. Now, it was pushed upward through Olak-Koth’s abdomen, out through the back of her neck and into a fissure in the serpent’s vertebrae. At the other end of the shaft, Malune glared up at the necromancer, thrashed her tail, forced the weapon deeper into the necromancer.
“Now!” Malune turned and screamed at Jaltha. Jaltha did not hesitate. She swam forth, lifting Nakaroth with both hands and all her strength, though her dying muscles cried for relief. Olak-Koth opened her beak to scream, but no sound came before the sword had passed through her, the weeping cloak of souls suddenly silenced. The necromancer’s body separated below the arms, the bottom portion trailing black blood, like a dark comet on its way to the wastes a league below.
Jaltha and Malune’s eyes met for a moment before Malune’s gaze fell to the spear in Jaltha’s side. They grasped each other as Nakaroth vanished from Jaltha’s hand, flickering back into the aether. Malune took Jaltha and swam out of the serpent’s ribcage as the bones fell apart from one another. No longer held together by the necromancer’s will, they collapsed and crumbled, following their master and dragging the dead after them into the fire.
Somewhere in the deep darkness of a wounded sleep, Nakaroth spoke.
You have done almighty work, Jaltha of Dheregu.
She opened her eyes, suddenly fully awake. Over her head, there was pure black stone, baroquely carved. She lifted her body from a slab of the same obsidian. There was a pain in her ribs, and deeper, and she remembered…
“Jaltha!” She turned. There, in a finely decorated threshold, was Malune. She swam into the small chamber. Behind her followed a regal-looking salathe Eldress, wearing the headdress and shoulder shells of a chieftain.
Malune took a place beside the wide berth of volcanic glass upon which Jaltha lay. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while, perfectly silent. The chieftain waited, patiently. Words formed behind Jaltha’s beak, but she kept it shut. The silence was far more appropriate.
At last, Jaltha turned from Malune to face the chieftain.
“Where are we?” Jaltha asked.
It was the chieftain who answered.
“You are within the Mooring of Olm-Daki,” she said.
“A hunting party had spotted us,” said Malune, “They saw the bones of the serpent fall, and they found us among the debris. You’ve been asleep for many days.”
The chieftain lowered her heavily ornamented head. “It is likely that all of Olm-Daki owes you our lives.” She straightened, crossed her strong arms. She stared hard at Jaltha. “The kryndyr surgeons here have repaired your wounds, and assure me you will live. I wanted to personally extend my invitation that you remain here. All will be taken care of, of course. You would want for nothing. It is the least we can do.”
Malune and Jaltha both looked at the chieftain, then at each other. Malune nodded. Jaltha said, “For now, at least, we will remain.”
The chieftain chittered in excitement. “I will have a more permanent living arrangement prepared near the top of the mountain, close to the worldbreak. The sunlight there is legendary! Why, I myself retain a home there…” She was still speaking excitedly to herself as she turned and left the chamber.
Malune knelt and clacked her beak, just once, against Jaltha’s before turning and following the chieftain. “I will return,” she said. The sensation lingered, mingling with the sound of Malune’s voice as she absently ran her hands over her arms, her tail and felt the scars there. She stared up at the obsidian ceiling, at the myriad carvings, vines and tentacles entwined and knotted like the ways of the Fates that had led her here. It was useless to try and find a pattern, she knew. But she would have time.
Even as she followed them, the carvings seemed to blur, and she looked away, out the narrow window of the chamber toward the bright orange horizon, where the volcanoes breathed, and thought of Malune, and how they two alone had lived, how very many had died and for no good reason, and how old the world was, and how many more would live, and how many more would die, and how truly surreal it was to be anything, anything at all. On its own, her beak opened and she chittered. She thought she felt the world stumble then, as though she had joined Malune in learning its secret.
Outside, the fires burned forever, and the currents roared, and the souls of ancient monsters rode planes of sunlight to the sky.
I parked my dented Chevy Caprice in the hot asphalt sea of Beemers and Benzes. I thought about dinging the Lexus next to me. Bring a refreshing taste of anarchy into some yuppie’s life. I didn’t, though. Mr. Lexus probably deserves it, but I’m just not that kind of girl.
The five-story building looked like a hospital. Sliding doors whooshed open and too much air conditioning blasted me in the face. I turned right, following the signs for the Advanced Robotics Laboratory.
For the next mind-numbing half-hour, I did nothing but sign my name to waivers and releases. Considering the government requires me to be here, covering their ass with legalese seems like a pretty cowardly blanket. Even after reinstating the draft, mandating two years’ military service, and making voting compulsory, men in Congress still felt guilty forcing citizens to participate in government research. Oh, they claim this is no different than jury duty, that there’s no risk of harm to the test subjects.
With jokes like that, Senators could do stand-up.
When I finally finished the forms, an Asian woman in a white lab coat took me to a waiting area. I asked what to expect. She ignored me. “Please take a seat,” she said. “When the door opens, enter the room, and the experiment will begin.”
Before I could get another question out, she slipped back down the hall.
When I checked in, the receptionist confiscated my purse, phone, and my tattered copy of A People’s History. Nothing allowed in the experiment, she said. She looked at my jewelry like it might be off-limits too, but she can go to hell. I’m not taking out seven piercings.
No phone. No book. With nothing else to do, I kicked my black Chelsea boots up on the suede Ottoman, and waited.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
Looking down the rows, I saw no close spaces open, so I whipped my Range Rover into a handicap spot. I passed five of those, all open. Why waste so much prime parking? I suppose even secret military research must be ADA-compliant.
I adjusted my necktie in the rearview mirror, and headed in to find the lab.
My clients don’t mind if I’m a few minutes late. I bill by the hour, and twenty minutes is a rounding error in the legal profession. This receptionist, though, glared at me as I walked up. I smiled and introduced myself. I apologized for being late, and I even complimented her godawful hairstyle. She warmed to me after that. All sins forgiven.
I read through their legalese garbage, the standard (and poorly-written) government nonsense. I could tear it apart in court, so I didn’t mind signing it, even the non-disclosure agreement. Then an Asian chick in a white lab coat led me back to an empty waiting area. I gave her my smile and complimented her necklace, but her face remained flat and cold as steel. “Please take a seat,” she said. “The experiment will begin shortly.”
All business. Nobody has time for fun anymore.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #1 (TS-01) x—x
A buzzer sounded, and the door slid open. I expected a stark white laboratory, beakers and test tubes and clipboards.
Instead, I stepped into a retro 1920s jazz club. Antique leather chairs and matching deep brown couch formed a seating area in the center. A dimly lit bar stood along the back wall, crystal martini glasses hanging from dark cherry wood, with rows of liquor bottles behind. Large plants chilled out in corners. As soon as I entered, a speaker clicked and light jazz floated down. Nothing romantic, just enough to set a casual mood.
For a government job, this was incredibly classy.
Only then did I notice the giant silver mirror on the wall—one-way glass, I’m sure. They’re watching me, I reminded myself. And they weren’t the only ones. Opposite me, another door had opened. A guy in a suit and tie stood there blinking like he just woke up.
We both entered, and our respective doors slid shut behind us, flush with the wall.
The guy came up to me and smiled. “Hi. I’m Jackson.”
“McKayla,” I said, shaking his hand. I got that same urge from before to create anarchy. Just reflex. I wanted to kick him in the shin. I resisted.
“This is…pretty unbelievable,” he said, hands on his hips and looking around. “I don’t know what I expected when I got the summons for the Advanced Robotics Lab, but it sure wasn’t this.”
“Please have a seat.” A woman’s pleasant voice floated down from speakers in the ceiling, the jazz volume lowered to bare background noise. Jackson and I sat next to each other in the leather chairs, facing the mirrored wall. “The Android Robotics Laboratory thanks you for your participation in Experiment 3F24. For your information, audio and video recording equipment will be in use today, and laboratory technicians will be observing the events.”
The technical talk sounded jarring and out of place in the smooth, suave surroundings.
The woman paused. “Today, you will be testing our newest model, developed here at the ARL.
“Our latest android unit resembles humans not only in appearance and operation, but in consciousness as well. The android model you’ll be testing today believes it is human.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
An android that thinks it’s a human? I laughed. McKayla shot me a look.
“That explains all this,” I said, sweeping my arm around the speakeasy. “The robot thinks it’s a human, so give it a human surrounding. They couldn’t have picked something in the era of television? The Nationals play this afternoon.”
“Shut up,” McKayla hissed.
Above us, the Asian chick droned on. “The android is programmed to believe itself a human being in every way. This android will remember fictional experiences, have preprogrammed emotions, and hold opinions. It will believe it has a life outside this facility. In fact, we activated it just a few minutes ago.
“You may interact with the android in any way you see fit,” the chick concluded. “Your goal is to convince the android it is a machine. Once you do, the experiment is over. Now, please make yourselves comfortable. We will begin the experiment in a few minutes.”
A third door to the room stood next to the silvery mirror. I turned to face McKayla, and watched the door over her shoulder. “So. Come here often?”
McKayla rolled her eyes. “Save it, unless you want me to call you Jackass instead of Jackson.”
If she thought I was hitting on her, she had nothing to worry about. From the shock of purple in her jet-black hair, her plentiful facial piercings and her personality like a nail file, I knew she was not my type. “Just making conversation.”
After a minute, she touched my arm. “Hey. I didn’t mean to be bitchy. Sorry. I’m just a little on edge.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I smiled at her. “What do you suppose this thing’s going to look like? I mean, they say it’s human, but I don’t buy they could make it flawless.”
“Judging by the atmosphere, I wouldn’t underestimate it,” McKayla said. The music played again. “Stan Getz,” McKayla said, after a moment.
“You know jazz?” I would have bet money she listened to nothing but death metal. “I like it too. I played bass guitar in undergrad, before law school sucked all my time.”
She nodded. The longer we waited, the harder it became to keep conversation going. She rapped her fingernails on the leather chair. My knee bounced involuntarily. I put a hand to stop it. We both stared at the door now.
“How much longer?” I called out to the mirrored wall.
The Asian chick’s voice crackled back over the speaker. “The experiment is about to begin.”
We both stood, waiting for the door to open. McKayla crossed her arms. I clenched my fists at my sides. “Whatever happens, let’s do this together.” She nodded back at me.
We waited a full minute I’d say. I looked behind me. No other doors opened. No one else entered.
“Where’s the android?”
The voice came over the speaker one last time. “The android is one of you.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #1 (TS-01)
I stared at Jackson, and staggered back a few steps. Oh my God. This guy is an android.
We stared at each other for a long time. His eyes struck me the most. They looked so real. They darted back and forth like a frightened animal.
Surely, this is a social experiment. What would a normal person do when she’s told she’s in a room with a robot?
Minutes ticked by. That scenario looked less and less likely. Neither of us sat back down. The silence became unbearable.
“When did you first learn you were an android?” I asked.
He smiled. “I’m not.”
“So androids can lie.”
“Apparently so, judging by you. I almost believed you were human in the beginning. Almost.”
I laughed, but it came out short and stilted. He can’t really believe it’s me. This is just part of his programming. “I’m no android. I remember my whole life, all the way back to childhood. It sucked.”
I was adopted. A website matched Midwestern do-gooders with orphans around the world. My ‘parents’ were Herbert and Judith Johnson. Lifelong residents of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was plucked up from Morocco by the two whitest Americans in the whole country. They named me Margaret, and when I turned eighteen, I changed it to McKayla. I couldn’t stand Margaret.
As I told Jackson all this, I studied him. Jackson is white in the way my parents would have liked: close cropped blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. He has a charmer’s face, the type of face that’s punched a lot of V-cards. He wore a light gray suit with expensive brown shoes, and he keeps smoothing his necktie and smiling at me as I talk. Not saying a word, just smiling.
I remember my asinine childhood. Herb went to the Elk’s Club every Friday night. Judy stayed home and read books where a cat solved mysteries. It’s no wonder I got addicted to pills before I graduated high school. I wanted to tell Jackson all this, but the more I talked, the more I felt I should stop talking. Abruptly, I shut up.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
I would never admit it to McKayla, but it devastated me to learn she’s an android. I found her fascinating, despite myself. And I much preferred the prospect of her and I facing an android together, rather than me facing her alone.
I know I’m not the android. That’s impossible. I’ve been married to Megan for ten years. I didn’t just imagine that, I didn’t imagine Gavin and Ashley. I didn’t dream up three years of law school and three more spent clerking for some jagoff judge in Baltimore, fetching him grande lattes every morning and driving him home from the bar every night because he got pissing-himself drunk. In another ten years I’ll be partner in the biggest firm in D.C., and my kids will be at the same prep school as the First Family.
I’m not the android, end of story. Which means she is.
Time to go to work.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not an android. I have memories just like you, a childhood with a mommy and daddy who didn’t love me and wouldn’t look at my baseball trophies. That doesn’t make a bit of difference. One of us is telling the truth and one of us—you—is saying what they were programmed to say.”
“What makes you so damn sure?”
“That I’m human? I do corporate trial law for clients from here to Boston. I know people, and people know me. You can’t fake the connections I have, honey.”
She smirked. “Or they made you think that, when they turned you on fifteen minutes ago.”
“You want to prove it?” I asked. I pulled off my jacket and loosened my tie. “Let’s prove it.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #1 (TS-01)
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. He was ripping off his clothes like we were drunk teenagers with our parents out of town.
“No matter how well the android speaks, something will be different physically,” he said, as he pulled off his white shirt. “Skin texture, bone structure, hell, maybe even a USB port or a ‘Made In China’ sticker.” He started unbuckling his belt.
I crossed my arms. “If you think I’m getting naked with a robot while a bunch of scientists watch, you have a serious bug in your programming.”
A wide smile spread across his face. “So. You have something to hide.”
“Yeah, it’s called modesty. And safety. This may be tough for your hardwired male brain to grasp, but stripping naked with a strange man would be incredibly dangerous for any woman. So keep your clothes on, RoboCop.”
Jackson looked at the mirror-wall, as if pleading for an intervention. Nothing but the strains of Miles Davis came from the speakers. He looked down at himself, half-undressed, slacks around his knees.
“Fine,” he said, and yanked his pants up. “But the burden of proof is on you now. Make me believe.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
I finished buttoning my shirt, and watched myself in the mirror-wall as I retied my tie.
“Oh save it,” McKayla called over my shoulder. I deliberately took more time, and started over tying the knot. Why should I listen to her? She basically insinuated I was ready to rape her. What kind of scumbag did she think I was?
I pulled on my jacket and smoothed the flaps. She gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh for the love of God stop primping!”
I sat down in the chair, and crossed my legs. “Very well. Your turn. What do you suggest we do to figure out the answer?”
“I told you, I’m not an android—“
“And I told you, I could give a shit what you say.” My words shocked her, I think. She stared at me. “I’ve got no reason to believe you, and you’ve got no proof. What’s your next idea?”
I knew it came out a little harsh, but I wasn’t about to apologize. I let the sharp words hang in the air like suspended knives.
She thought for a minute, and then lifted her hands into fists. “Fight me.”
“Fight me. You wanted a physical test. You’ve got me by at least fifty pounds and five inches. If I can kick your ass, then maybe I am the android, all metal and steel inside like the Terminator.” She smiled, and bounced back and force. “Or maybe you’re just a pussy who will get beat up by a girl.”
“I’m not fighting you.”
“Oh, have something to hide?” she mocked, imitating my voice. “C’mon, rock’em sock’em.”
“Why not? Scared I’ll hurt you?” I heard a malicious taunt in her voice.
I adjusted my tie. “When I was twenty, my older sister Rachel married a fat Armenian named Tony. All the family knew he was bad news for Rachel.
“What we didn’t know: Rachel married Tony because he threatened to kill her if she didn’t. Nearly killed her anyway. Beat the living hell out of her four times in their first year of marriage.
“After three years, she finally told us what was happening. I stood between my sister and Tony the night she left him.
“So no. I won’t hit a woman. Even an android.”
All McKayla’s energy deflated. Her hands dropped to her sides, and she sank into the heavy leather chair. Above us, a sad saxophone crooned.
“Your turn,” McKayla said, without looking up.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #1 (TS-01)
Jackson blathered on about his job, something about his record winning cases, his name in the newspaper, all that. I really wasn’t listening. He had no way to prove it.
Jackson had stopped talking, and was looking at me. “What was that? I missed it.”
“I asked what you do for a living.”
“It’s boring. You wouldn’t care.”
“Probably computer science, something an android would do,” he said.
What the hell? Did they program him with my bio?
That grin spread across his face again. “I knew it.”
“I’m a server admin—” was all I got out before he erupted in laughter. Bastard. What, is everybody in IT a robot? Millions of androids out there just because we’re smart enough to send emails without needing tech support? You can stop laughing anytime now, Jackson, before I slam your empty head into the wall.
Maybe my therapist is right. Maybe I do have some unresolved anger issues.
He finally calmed down, but still had this grin stitched to his face. I said, “When you think about it, a computer tech like me is the ideal person to evaluate the most advanced robotics available—like you.”
His smile vanished. “Nice try.”
After that we quizzed each other on current events. It turned into an obscure game of Jeopardy. We both got some and missed some and argued about others. I don’t know anything about golf. Neither do a lot of people. Who won the Masters this year? Who cares? That doesn’t make me the android, it makes me not a boring white bread sonofabitch.
Of course, when he missed one of mine, he got this smug look on his face. Said things like, “Oh, that’s right,” as if he knew the correct answer all along. What an enormous tool.
Plus, I don’t believe nobody’s buried in Grant’s tomb. Jackson can take his trick questions and shove them up his Brooks Brothers ass.
We’ve been in here for nearly an hour now. I can tell he’s getting antsy. So am I. But I’m going to break him. Any minute now, I am going to break this android, and leave his programming in pieces on the smooth tile floor.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” McKayla asked me.
I looked over at her. “What do you mean?”
“You heard me. The worst thing you’ve done, on purpose. Not, ‘Oh, I wasn’t paying attention and got in a car wreck.’ Did you ever steal money? Sell drugs?” She paused. “Ever kill somebody?”
I shook my head. “Why in the world would I tell you that?”
“Because everyone has something. C’mon, hotshot. I assume you signed non-disclosure agreements here, same as me. If you really believe I’m the android, then you’re just talking to a machine.” She sat forward in her chair. “But I’m betting you don’t have anything. Never got a DUI, never even missed your kid’s soccer games. You’re no more human than a microwave.”
McKayla seemed to relish her idea, and clung to it. She pushed, and pushed. I stood up and turned away from the mirror wall. I looked at the old bar and wanted to pour myself a drink. I knew what story to tell. Encouraging me, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane played “In A Sentimental Mood.”
“Nobody knows about Clarissa,” I began. “Especially not Megan.”
God, am I really doing this? I must be crazy.
McKayla closed her eyes. She could see where this was headed.
“It’s not an affair,” I said, to clarify. “It’s just about sex, which Megan and I haven’t had since Ash was born. I still love Megan, I love my kids. Clarissa is just…different.”
In truth, Clarissa lived in my peripheral vision. I only saw chestnut hair, long legs in a short skirt, not a whole person. Clarissa was a means to end, not love.
McKayla sat forward, chin resting on her hand. She tried to hide her gleeful smile. “You love your wife but you cheated on her. You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” She sighed. “How many times?”
“I saw Clarissa last Thursday.”
“It’s still going on?” McKayla practically shouted. “Good God, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“Yeah, but I—“
“Before you start judging me, I want to hear yours.”
She paused, mouth open.
I set my jaw. “I said, tell me yours. You know my dirty little secret now. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, McKayla Johnson?”
She sat down. “I was going to tell you getting hooked on Vicodin and Oxycontin, nearly flunking out of college. But after hearing yours…” McKayla looked at me. “Why are you still doing it? You’ve got a wife, two kids. Why risk it?”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. I wish I wasn’t. I just…can’t stop. I need it.” I decided against full disclosure: Clarissa wasn’t the first.
“If there’s a hell, you’re going to it.”
We were quiet for awhile, although her words struck me as strange. If there’s a hell, she said.
“What do you think about death?” I asked. She gave me a funny look, as though I asked if she were pregnant. “Do you believe in God? An afterlife?”
“No,” she said emphatically, as if the matter were that simple.
“Just ‘no’?” I held my hands out, palms up. “Nothing more to it? All of humanity just sprang from nothingness for no reason? One day, we’ll all die, and that’s the end of existence forever?”
She crossed her arms. “Yes.”
“What about the human spirit? The soul? Are those just made up fairy tales too?”
“I didn’t— “ she started, but stopped. “I’m not getting into a religious debate with you.”
“Why not?” I asked. “You’re willing to argue everything else. You’re happy to say what I’m doing in life is immoral, but you clam up when I ask about your basis for right and wrong?”
“Listen to you,” she said. “The adulterer, lecturing me on morality. Spare me.”
I sat back, rubbing my neck. “I’m not exactly an every-Sunday churchgoer,” I admitted. “I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t always do right by everyone. Sometimes, I don’t even try.”
I paused. My necktie suddenly felt too tight. I tugged it looser. “That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for religion, I realize. Still, whether or not I personally do right, I believe there is a God, or another life after this, or something. Maybe there’s even a hell, but I hope not.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, her voice sharp and cold. “There’s not.”
Amazing. I had never tried to reach someone before. I ignore the doorbell when pimply-faced guys carrying Bibles come calling. But here I am, evangelizing, and I chose this as my first attempt?
“I read once that 90-some percent of people on Earth believe in a higher power,” I said, “be it God, Buddha, whatever. It makes sense an android wouldn’t believe in anything, though. An android’s god is a human.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #1 (TS-01)
I wanted to spit at him. That’s not the urge for anarchy talking. That’s all me. I despise Jackson.
One minute he’s telling me about screwing his mistress, and the next he’s judging me—judging me!—for not believing. He’s the churchgoing adulterer, the supposed defender of battered women who turns around and uses them for sex. What a hypocrite.
I tapped on the mirror and told the anonymous faces beyond the glass I needed to pee. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Jackson. He jumped up and said he needed to pee, too.
Of course. I bet an android looks human, but doesn’t have the same urges. If I hadn’t mentioned it, he might have gone hours, maybe days, without remembering.
Next to the cherry wood bar, a section of the wall slid open. Inside was a toilet and sink. Apparently, the scientists didn’t want us leaving the experiment for anything.
When I finished, I stepped out and Jackson went in.
Listening at the door, I have to hand it to the scientists. He pees as loud and noisy as any other man I’ve ever known.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
McKayla’s restroom theatrics were a nice touch, very believable. I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Time for closing arguments.
I laid out my case to McKayla this way. Science has obviously created an exceptional android, one that believes it is human. Thus, either of us should be equally likely to be the android. But only one of us displays other characteristics consistent with a machine’s thinking.
One: McKayla has a computer background. She thinks and speaks in computer lingo. I, on the other hand, rarely send my own email.
Two: McKayla has no biological connections. She has adopted parents, and no siblings. She doesn’t have a boyfriend—though she claims she has before—and she’s mostly a loner. Only a few close friends, but of course, she can’t prove even that.
Three: She refused to let me examine her body. She obviously has something to hide.
Finally, four: McKayla doesn’t believe in God, and isn’t spiritual. That’s very consistent with machine thinking, although almost all humans believe differently.
Judge, I rest my case. McKayla is the android.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #1 (TS-01)
Fuck him. Pretty-mouthed son of a bitch. He stands up and gives a speech, always with an eye toward the scientists behind the glass, a pet performing for its master. He thinks that will trick me? Two can play at that game. Here are the reasons you, Jackson, are the android.
You’re a male bimbo, printed out of a catalogue. All surface knowledge and nothing underneath, no personality, no uniqueness, just like an android prototype. You’re a white male with a suit-and-tie job, a wife and two kids. That’s got to be Generic Android Model #1-A. Oh, that’s right, you also have a mistress. That doesn’t make you not an android, it makes you a shitty, amoral android. It proves you don’t give a damn about the feelings of other people, because you can’t feel anything yourself.
You don’t believe me? You want to find out for sure? I had a cutting problem as a teenager. Let’s dig into our arms, we’ll find out which one of us has metal inside.
◊ ◊ ◊
Test Subject #2 (TS-02)
“Holy shit, what the hell are you doing?”
McKayla pulled off one of her many piercings, a huge one with a long backer, and held it like a needle above her forearm.
I jumped out of my seat. “She’s going to cut herself! Somebody,” I shouted to the glass, “if you’re watching this, get your ass in here and stop her!”
We both waited, the thick silence hanging in the air. No one came.
“We’re on our own,” McKayla said, the long backer poised just above her skin. “Still think you’re the human?”
Her program must be malfunctioning. Or maybe this is the last ditch effort. She knows she’s made. This is the only way to get me to concede, and fail the experiment. Imagine that: the human lies and says he’s the android, just to protect the machine.
“I’ve got another earring,” she said. Her voice sounded lower, half a snarl, like a dog circling an injured animal. “Are you too much of a coward to do it with me?”
Why haven’t the scientists come in here to stop this? Are they going to let us cut ourselves? What if we tried to cut each other?
What if we tried to kill each other?
She’s still got the thing above her arm, holding it like a needle. She says she’ll do it.
Maybe she’s bluffing. Maybe they programmed her with a fail-safe mechanism to prevent—
“Screw this,” McKayla said. She plunged the backer into her forearm, and pulled as hard as she could. She screamed, and I heard a tiny sound like the scrape of a dull knife against thick flesh. She collapsed to the floor, and held up her forearm, a long strip of skin cut away.
Nothing but silicone and metal showed beneath.
◊ ◊ ◊
The experiment must have ended after that. I vaguely remember the door buzzing open, the scientists carrying McKayla, unconscious, from the room. I think I talked to one of them, maybe filled out more paperwork, but these are foggy flashes from a dream. I was halfway to Virginia before I realized I was driving.
I knew McKayla was the android. I never doubted it, not for a second. How could I? I’m a human being.
Only, McKayla seemed no less committed than me. That frightened me, even from the beginning. Made me doubt. What if all my life I thought I lived, my childhood and college and Megan and kids, what if all that had been programmed into me, just before walking in that room? That was McKayla’s life, an entire existence lived on a flash drive.
The scientists told me afterward she wasn’t dead. They just shut her down to prevent more damage. This was the 24th experiment they’ve run with McKayla, and self-harm was a first. They will repair her, try to fix that particular bug. Next week is experiment number 3F25.
It was terrible to watch McKayla practically commit suicide in front of my eyes, but the worst is knowing McKayla has to live that tiny window of existence over and over, always being so committed to her beliefs, and always, in the end, being wrong.
When I got home, Megan was in the kitchen, on her cell phone and slicing peppers for dinner. In the backyard, Gavin chased his sister with a squirt gun.
McKayla may have been an android, her memories artificial and her passion a façade. Even so, the impact she left on me feels real enough indeed.
I opened the door to the backyard, and relished the delighted squeals.
Christopher Mowder is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, living in the Midwest. Most recently, his work “The Goblin’s Son” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @cmowder.
Birds wake and throw their songs against the world
I rise and add my morning song nogwo sunale nigalsda
face East and pray into what sun there is
Battles are over
Defeat comes as a relief, suddenly
There is no more fight in me for you
who didn’t fight for me
Birds settle on wires
unharmed by power within
They lift and fly formation in a sky that has no answer
except for clouds’ iterations
Somewhere a bear is waking up
like the one whose prints I saw in snow direct register
My dog put her nose into impressions resembling human handprints
My son carved a soapstone yona for me
that I placed by shards from Jerusalem and Manassah a friend gave me
from her dig
I don’t feel like singing, my voice is choked with tears gvyalielitse Yihowa
my heart has become like agate
cold and pointed planes
bones mineralize, why not the heart
defeat may be relief but it is grief all the same
All the things you feared, they have come true
still, song rises
still, red bud and dogwood
throw forth bloom
still, blackbird with red war paint
“Morning Song”: Facing East, a song of praise is offered in the morning. Nogwo sunale nigalsda (now morning has come). Yona (bear) Gvyalielitse Yihowa (I am thankful to you, God) iyugwu (Bring it)
Kimberly L. Becker, Cherokee/Celtic/Teutonic descent, is author of Words Facing East and The Dividings. A member of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, her poems appear in journals such as Drunken Boat and Fulcrum and in anthologies such as Indigenous Message on Water and Bared. www.kimberlylbecker.com
Editor’s Notes: The image by Gandex wallpaper seemed to fit lovely line from the poem, Birds wake and throw their songs against the world.
He had trucked downstairs. The night was only beginning – like the night before – and the one before that. It was 7:54 p.m. Once a stripling in the full sway of manhood, he didn’t speak – just hauled off and descended the stairs.
In the kitchen, she had cleaned crumbs off the counter. Probably the fourth time that day – or was it the day, the month, the year before – the crumbs—accumulating through obsolete years. “Crumbs,” Thelma Louise said to herself. “Crumbs. Crumbs.” She remembered how Gretel had scattered crumbs, she and Hansel. It was a grim thought. God, I’ve heard of affairs that are strictly platonic.
“Oh, my god,” she said again – but this wasn’t a prayer, even though the gods had played a part in life’s determinations about the great beyond for thousands of years; she was, however, no Athena. There were bags under her eyes. Brown spots on her hands. Protruding veins. She finished wiping crumbs again. And again, she would swish the dishcloth under the faucet, depositing the tidbits in the sink before turning on the disposal. There were fruit flies on the watermelon.
He had trudged upstairs now—as was customary – night, noon, and morning. He held out his hand, giving a biscuit to the dog1 who was, as usual, lying on her pallet. It had a discriminating appetite though it had once been a stray, a rescue. Now it slept in Thelma Louise’s bed, and snored. Sometimes, she would take her foot and kick it, whereupon it would hop off for awhile and return again – jumping on the bed and nudging itself against Hans, her husband who would kick it again – and so the night passed – like the night before – and the dog, without actual proof of residency, felt now a true sense of hominess.
Now, an hour had passed. Bread was baking in the oven. She could smell it upstairs. “Nothing smells as good as homemade bread!” Thelma Louise exclaimed. “The staff of life,” even if from a 7-grain mix, and the crumbs, she would lick her fingers, savoring each dib and dab rich with salted butter—and she would lick each finger in turn—the index finger first, then the thumb – and then last, as usual, the ring finger with the wedding band she’d worn for sixty years. Soon it would be her Diamond Anniversary. “Crumbs,” and she started to sing, the tune emerging throatly:
I’ve heard of affairs that are strictly platonic
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
And I think affairs that you must keep masonic are better bets
If little pets get big baguettes,
Time rolls on and youth is gone and you can’t straighten up when you bend
But stiff back or stiff knees you stand straight at… Tiffany’s…
It was midnight now, and Thelma Louise couldn’t sleep. It was often this way, yesterday, the night before, the night before that. Time was not the shortest distance. The climate was changing; how, pray would it alter the eco-system? The children were grown and had flown the coop, and the cuckoo2 clock she’d bought in Germany years before; she was 19 then and had gone abroad a whole summer because her parents hadn’t wanted her to marry her college beau. Thought she might get interested in a swarthy Italian who would serenade her and take her on an all-night gondola ride. The clock, crumbs, it hadn’t worked for years—just sat there on the wall, the little bird on it’s perch, the door broken. “Crumbs,” Thelma Jean said—and she kicked the damn dog off the bed.
“Beast,” she screamed. It had scoffed not just one tablet, but a whole pill pot – the “rejuvenix” pills that would turn back the clock on aging; take each night before bedtime and wait for morning. Now no refills.
It is/ it was a traditional cuckoo clock with leaves and two lovebirds on top.
Sue Walker, M.Ed, MA, and Ph.D., is the publisher / editor of Negative Capability (Mobile, Ala). She was Poet Laureate of Alabama from 2003-2012 and Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama where she retired in July 2015. In 2013, she received the Eugene Garcia Award for outstanding scholarship by the Alabama Council of English and a Mellen Award for outstanding scholarship for her critical work on James Dickey, The Ecopoetics of James Dickey. She has received several Pushcart nominations and numerous creative writing awards for fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry. She has published eight books of poetry, numerous critical articles, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. She has spoken and given workshops throughout the U.S.A. and abroad. Sue is the President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave.
Editor’s Notes: This is another experimental poem, with some hybrid structure, that at the very least subverts form while maintaining a prose disguise. The image is that of a traditional cuckoo clock that has been warmed, enhanced and vignetted.