End of training celebrations were typically riotous and sometimes ended in injury. Rosa, seventeen years old and technically not allowed to consume any type of mind altering substance, sipped her drink when others gulped, and gently declined the more extreme offers of hallucinogens. She wasn’t concerned with fitting in, not today, and in any case she had heard some rumors that excessive indulgence lead to lowered reaction times, even weeks after the fact.
She was the youngest there, naturally. They’d tried to keep her out, telling her that it was just bad luck she’d been born two years too late, but her scores had been so good, and, she suspected, her letters and video calls and campaigns so annoying that they’d admitted her in the end, possibly just to shut her up.
She knew they’d expected her to burn out, like seventy percent of candidates did, and she’d half believed that she would. When she didn’t, when she did well enough to scrape into the top ten percent, when she’d graduated with the rest of her class, standing slightly shorter and grinning a damned sight wider, well?
She had cause for celebration. Just in her own way.
She was going to make it through the Wall of Mouths.
“Rosa, you’re a lightweight.” Hardison was one of the few other pilots who didn’t care that she was so much younger. He’d told her on no few occasions that he would have done the same, if he’d been born, like she was, too young for a Push. Some of us are meant to fly, kid, he’d said to her. You and me, we’re meant to do this, you’ll see on Push Day.
Here, now, he swayed to the music, eyes heavy lidded, full lips curved in a smile. “A lightweight,” he repeated. “Have a drink you’ve earned it.”
“I’m seventeen, Hardison,” she said, smiling up at him. He was the tallest guy she knew, all lean muscle and deep black skin, and she’d had a hopeless, harmless crush on him ever since training had begun.
He was way too old for her. But that didn’t matter in the land of hopeless crushes.
“No one here cares that you’re seventeen, girl. You’ve proved yourself a thousand times over. Most of them wish they were half the pilot you are.”
She shrugged and sipped her drink, even as another pilot came up behind Hardison, draped his arm around the man’s shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss.
Rosa flushed and looked away as Hardison returned the kiss enthusiastically, then shoved the man away.
“Who was that?” she asked, and Hardison shrugged.
“Don’t know. Good kisser though.” His eyes narrowed, looking at her again. “I know it’s a bit wild here,” he said. “If you need me to stick with you.
“I can take care of myself, Hardison,” she said.
She could. Although, in its own way, the heaving mass of humanity in the relatively small bar was more intimidating than the final exams and practicals had been back in the arena. The graduates were celebrating life, she could understand that, and, when it boiled right down to it, she hadn’t lived as much as they had.
And possibly wouldn’t.
The night wore on and she found herself in a corner nursing the same drink, legs crossed as she watched men and women and everyone in between do things she’d never even dreamed of, in the name of celebration, in the spirit of life.
There was a desperation to it that she was finally coming to understand, and she wasn’t sure if she should be afraid.
San Miguel, northwest Philippines, 1934
I have seen him before, when he comes to my house with his father, the postman, to help deliver packages. His name is Arturo Viray, and when he sees me he always smiles. Today, at the market, it’s the way he walks—leaning forward a little, his hands behind his back—that catches my eye. That’s the way Father walked. When I look at him he smiles again, and I wish I could talk to him, but Placitas, our maid, is just ahead of me and she always tell me not to talk to boys.
“Miss Mei, don’t straggle—” Pacita calls, then starts haggling with the fishmonger in the crowded market, so she’s not paying too much attention to me. I walk a little closer to her, glancing back to see if Arturo is following. He has moved a few feet closer and is staring right at me, which makes my face burn. I look away, but inside I feel like singing.
Arturo is handsome, with thick, dark wavy hair, and he is slender but not skinny. He is Filipino. Uncle doesn’t like me to mix with Filipinos, since we are Chinese. There are not many of us in our town, so the only boys I know go to my Chinese school and are not very interesting. Uncle says that we will go back to China someday, when things there are peaceful, and that Chinese are better than Filipinos, but I don’t agree. Pacita is Filipino, and has helped raise me since before my parents died. She is like a mother to me—but Uncle would not like me saying such things.
I watch Arturo from the corner of my eye as he walks in that funny way of Father’s, and Father’s voice echoes in my mind: You are my Mei-Feng, beautiful and precious. I giggle. Pacita snaps her eyes on me so I stop, but then she starts talking to one of the market women so I move closer to Arturo, Father’s words making me brave. As Pacita talks to the woman selling eggplants, I suddenly find Arturo standing next to me, and before I can say anything he slips a piece of paper into my hand, then disappears into the crowd. I open the fold and read.
You are pretty. Meet me at the river bridge today.
I read the words three times over to make sure I’m seeing them right—he wants to see me! Then I stuff the note quickly into the pocket of my skirt.
“Miss Mei, let’s go—” Pacita says, walking over to me. I wonder what I should do: If I do not go, Arturo may think I do not like him. If I do go, he may think I’m not virtuous. Then I think about what will happen if I do nothing—I will walk home with Pacita, have tea, and read until it’s time to help her prepare dinner for Uncle. The thought of another boring, lonely afternoon makes me want to cry.
“Pacita, can I go and visit Lily? I finished all my schoolwork,” I lie.
“We have too many things to carry. I don’t want to walk all the way to Miss Lily’s house.”
“I’ll go by myself. Here—” I take one of the bags she is holding, and though she eyes me suspiciously, she nods and tells me to come home before the sun starts to go down.
As I walk to the river, I grin with the secret knowledge of the note. I feel like a dozen little fish are flopping around inside my chest. He wants to meet me at the river! Maybe we will walk to the waterfall, my special place—the place where I first found out that I could fly.
The kiss lingered on Delia’s lips. She curled her fingers around her blanket, longing to return to the dream where the woman with green eyes murmured in her ear. The words faded. The dream dissolved. Delia trembled. Heat coursed through her veins. Her limbs tingled. She turned with a slow, languorous movement, imagining the green-eyed woman lying beside her.
“Del!” Her mother’s voice spoiled any chance of re-entering the dream. “The sun is up and you aren’t.”
Delia thrust away her ragged blue blanket. The heat from her dream evaporated, and she shivered in the frigid air.
“Coming,” she called. She reached for her clothes.
The main room of the cottage was warmer than Delia’s tiny alcove. She pushed aside the curtain and joined her mother at the central hearth. The odor of last night’s pottage lingered.
Before she could hang the kettle over the fire, Marthe said, “Another message came. At first light.” She drew it from her pocket and handed it to Delia.
Delia tucked the sealed sheet of vellum into the pocket of her apron and positioned the kettle on the pot hanger.
“It’s from the duke. Why don’t you read it?”
“Have you heard from Rob?” Delia joined Marthe at the rough-hewn table where her mother stood kneading dough. Her older brother had sent a message the week before announcing his first visit home since joining the king’s service.
“He’ll get here when he can.”
Delia crossed the room to the single tiny window. Beyond the road that led toward the village, the forest beckoned. Spring had come and melted most of the snow.
“What about the duke?” Marthe said. “He wants to meet you. He lost his wife at harvest time.”
“The duke had four wives, Mother. Why would I want to be the fifth?”
Before Marthe could answer, Delia’s father entered with an armload of kindling. “Because he can take care of you,” Luc said. “Those rumors of foul play come from ones not chosen, I’d wager. You need a husband, girl. Since Rob left, we can’t earn any extra. It’s all I can do to tend the goats and crops.”
Luc was a good man, kind and honest, but age and work had worn him out, and the accident with the plow had left him with a limp. At nineteen, Delia was overdue for marriage, but no suitor compared with the woman who danced through her dream world. Whenever she refused a hog farmer or apprentice blacksmith, Marthe huffed and said she was too particular. Months had passed since the last hopeful swain approached the cottage.
“I could seek a position in town,” Delia said. “A tutor or chambermaid.” Her heart chilled at the thought of spoiled children and endless chores in someone else’s house, but she had to help out, or find a husband.
The woman who roamed her dreams appeared before her eyes, but Delia shook her head. A dream didn’t put food on the table, but, oh, to be trapped inside a manor house! No more walks through the wood to forage for wild cherries and walnuts. No conversations with the sparrows that landed on her shoulder. No daydreaming by her favorite stream.
“You would find suitors in town,” Marthe said. “Even from the gentry, maybe, but don’t wait too long, love, or you’ll lose your chance for a home and children. You want children, don’t you?” Marthe’s life revolved around Luc and her children, but Delia wasn’t sure. The mysterious woman who roamed her dreams was calling her, but for what? And from where?
The first time I woke up someplace unexpected, it was a bank vault.
I thought I was still dreaming, seeing as how I was naked. But the cold metal walls felt so real against my fingertips. The stacks of bills smelled like real money. The blaring siren was so loud, it couldn’t be my alarm clock.
And it wasn’t.
Since I hadn’t stolen anything, all they could get me for was trespassing and indecent exposure. The bank, anxious to avoid questions about their vault’s security, dropped the charges on the condition I kept my mouth shut. Seemed fair. They even leant me a poncho for the walk home.
On my way out the front door, I ran into my neighbor Fred. He was stumbling down the block in plaid pajamas. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person that had woken up someplace unexpected. Thousands of us had. The city was in chaos. I headed home.
My front door was ajar. I crept through the house in my poncho, peering around corners and inside closets. The intruder was gone. The whole place smelled like hooch, and my fridge was raided of everything but the condiments. A five-dollar bill sat on the counter, next to a note that read: “Sorry, woke up here and got hungry. This should cover some of it. -Jim.”
The pictures on the mantle were all out of order. I imagined the rudely awakened Jim stumbling around in his pajamas, stuffing burnt toast into his mouth, still drunk on bad booze. Knocking everything over, doing a terrible job of putting it back. The pictures I’d so painstakingly hidden in the back row now glared at me from front and center.
Penny and I, drunk-faced and stuffed into a giant Disneyland teacup, buried to our necks in sand by the Venice Beach boardwalk, made-up like zombies and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, during a Halloween party at our place. Her place, now. My face in the pictures leered at me, as if to say, “Don’t you wish you were still me?”
I rearranged the mantle until all I could see were tactful travel photos devoid of smiling faces. Then I showered and did some yard work. Neighbors stumbled by in an assortment of sleeping attire throughout the day.
This time I put on some boxers before crawling into bed. Good thing I did. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and got a mouthful of salt air. Cold water lapped against my body. A gaggle of surfers smirked at me from the Redondo Beach pier. I waved. Had they fallen asleep in their swim trunks, cradling their surfboards, hoping to wake up at the beach and save themselves the walk?
On my way home, I tried not to think about the last time I’d been in Redondo. Penny and I spent our second anniversary on the pier, eating sushi and counting dolphins, duking it out on Street Fighter, the next day, a bus blindsided her sister. After Tina’s funeral, Penny said she needed some time. A week or two, to get her head straight. Six months later, the divorce papers showed up in the mail. I don’t know if she heard any of my messages or read any of my emails. But she never answered them.
My door was locked when I got home. I let myself in with the hide-a-key, thankful Jim hadn’t returned. My relief evaporated when I heard footsteps on the staircase. I looked around for a place to hide.
It was the new girl down the street, tanned legs jutting from beneath my old Pink Floyd shirt. Makeup smudges cradled her eyes.
“I woke up here.” She headed for the door. “Can I borrow the shirt?”
“Sure. There’s coffee–”
She shut the door behind her.
I sighed, flipped on the news. The city had devolved into mass confusion. Commuters were falling asleep on buses, only to wake up in rooftop bars. The mayor found a convent of nuns sleeping on his office floor. Flash mob pajama parties became an instant fad. Sleeping insurance was a real possibility.
The local news anchor called them “rude awakenings.” The phrase stuck. Scientists were hard at work, promising answers soon.
On the back porch, hummingbirds darted around the old oak tree, fighting for position at the feeder. Penny always loved hummingbirds, the way they buzzed like giant bees. The feeder ended up in one of the boxes she left on my doorstep, the day after the divorce papers arrived. I couldn’t remember to do the damn dishes, but I always kept the feeder full. I had this ridiculous notion that the hummingbirds might lure Penny back.
They never did.
That night, I was so tired I forgot all about the rude awakenings. I woke to a familiar alarm blaring in my ears. Finally, my own bed again. It felt like I hadn’t woken up here in months. The big down comforter, the loose spring–
This wasn’t my bed. Not anymore. I threw off the covers and hit the lights. I stood naked in our old room. The bed, the dresser, the nightstand were all exactly where I’d left them, ten months ago. Of all the rotten luck.
I cracked the door. Silence. I crept downstairs. Filtered sunlight drew fractal patterns against the living room walls. Bare walls. No pictures, no artwork. Each room looked just as I remembered it, except for the walls. As if Penny had scrubbed our history clean.
Keys rattled in the front door. I glanced down, saw that I was still naked and dove behind the couch.
I sighed. “It’s me.”
Penny stood in the doorway, wearing orange striped pajamas. She held an armload of framed photos.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I squinted at the photos. “Are those mine?”
“No! I mean, yes. I woke up in your house. The new one.”
“I woke up here. Hey, can you shut the door? I’m naked.”
She kicked the door shut. For an uncomfortable moment we just stared at each other. Then she set the photos down and headed upstairs.
After a brief commotion, she came back down. “Sorry, laundry day. This is all I’ve got.”
She tossed me a pair of frilly boxers with the word PINK emblazoned on the back. I shot her a glare, but she’d already disappeared into the kitchen. I put them on.
Penny returned with a pot of coffee and two mugs. She slumped into the corner of the couch. Her hair had gotten longer, and her face thinner. It hurt to look at her after all this time, but it hurt worse to look away.
“This rude awakening thing is exhausting.”
I sat down across from her. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry I stole your stuff.”
I waved my hand at the blank walls. “What happened to yours?”
“I threw them out.” Her expression clouded over. “They reminded me of Tina.”
“Then why take mine?”
She chewed on her lip. Her fingers grazed the photos.
“Disneyland. You remember how much liquor we smuggled in?”
“Enough rum to conquer Tom Sawyer Island. Those poor kids.”
She laughed. Tension eased from my shoulders.
“I thought you were gonna drown when you went overboard on that pirate ride.”
“I almost did. Thank god you had enough rum left to bribe the attendants, or we’d still probably be in jail.”
She flipped to the next picture, puddle-jumping in a Hollywood rainstorm. Then the next, surfboard headstands at the Marina Del Rey harbor. And the next, stuffed into fake sumo suits, locked in an eternal struggle. We talked until the coffee ran out. Then we cracked open beers and talked some more. I forgot that I was wearing women’s underwear, and that the walls were blank, and that the hummingbird feeder was hanging from a different tree, now. We ate ice cream out of the container, jawed about who was better with Chun-Li or E. Honda.
Long after the sun had gone down, she picked up the last photo. It was the one from the pier, the day before Tina was killed. Our mouths were so stuffed with sushi we could hardly smile for the camera.
Neither of us could think of anything to say about the photo.
Penny looked at me. “After Tina died, I went to bed every night wishing I’d wake up someplace different. Somewhere Tina was still alive. Where everything was still sushi and sunsets and Street Fighter.”
Penny slid closer, rested her head against my chest. She struggled to keep her eyelids open. “Do you think we’ll still be here when we wake up?”
Her breath was warm against my skin. It felt like home.
“I don’t know. But I hope so. Because I’m still wearing your underwear.”
She smiled, and in her eyes I could tell that our rude awakenings had finally come to an end.
Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including The Colored Lens, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Perihelion.
Bad things happen and sometimes there’s no one to blame. But each time I heard that from some well-meaning friend, the knife twisted a little further, cut a little deeper. I didn’t need them to tell me I was throwing everything to the wind: career, money, marriage. It wasn’t as if I had a choice.
Damned if I was going to lose my daughter–not again. Each death was a little harder to bear than the last.
So I pulled the photos from the envelope for one last look, even though I was running late for the divorce hearing. It gave me pleasure knowing Suzanne’s lawyers probably billed her by the minute.
I tilted the photograph on top for a better look. Except for a desk lamp, the apartment was in darkness. Beyond the picture window, downtown city lights glittered distantly thirty stories below. Suzanne used to call the place god’s platform and it did seem rather apt. My money had bought me that: luxury and distance–and other things besides.
In the photo, Alyson looked happy. We’d had a row the morning of her death, a stupid, pointless little argument. But I saw no trace of lingering resentment on her face now. I tilted the photo to catch the light, wanting to be sure.
Tomorrow (or maybe the day after) this would all be gone: the apartment, the houses, cars, investments–all my assets liquidated. But it would buy me the most important thing of all.
And that was all that mattered.
Sightings of the magical morfi fruit are exceedingly rare. Some say it only grows on the tip-top of the tallest peak in the Himalayas. Others say it grows on the red-hot rim of volcanoes, just after the lava has receded. Even others say it will only grow inside the stomach of a live crocodile and must be plucked while the beast is still alive, or it will shrivel and harden like a cherry pit. None of these places are likely to be visited by a ten year old boy, but somehow Johnny Dawson found a morfi and brought it to class as a gift for his teacher. He won’t tell me where he found it, and I’ve been his best friend for many years.
Everyone has their own theories about what happened the day he brought the fruit. I saw most of it myself, and learned the rest of it from Johnny.
Johnny walked into class that day with the morfi fruit in hand. It looked like a cross between an orange and a mango, but with little red hairs like the bristles on a kiwi. He placed it on Mrs. Whitmore’s desk and crossed his fingers behind his back for good luck. He was sure that she couldn’t help loving a gift as unique as that. Maybe she would give him an A right on the spot!
Unfortunately for him, his gift was not well-received because he was twenty-two minutes late for school. When Mrs. Whitmore finished her complex scribbles on the blackboard, she turned around and her face crinkled up like she’d bitten into a lemon. She looked even older when she made that expression.
“Johnny!” She jabbed the nub of chalk at him. “You’re late. Again. That’s detention.”
His shoulders sagged and his head drooped. He shuffled to his desk. He didn’t even grab his favorite hamster from its cage, like he usually did. He didn’t say a word through the rest of the day unless Mrs. Whitmore asked him directly. Usually he was so full of whys and hows and whos that she could barely finish a sentence without being interrupted. He even sat out of kickball at recess, his favorite game.
When the three o’ clock bell rang, the other kids ran for the door and sweet freedom. Johnny watched them go, then stared at the clock, waiting for it to tick away the seconds of his imprisonment.
A scratchy sandpaper sound drew his attention to Mrs. Whitmore’s desk. She was trying to polish the morfi fruit on her shirt. Her eyes met his and she smiled. He wondered why she didn’t smile more often. For a moment she seemed only a little old, instead of fossil-old.
“Where did you find this?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It is…very interesting.”
He didn’t say anything.
She pulled a plastic knife from her drawer and sliced the morfi open. The meat inside was purple and juicy, and it filled the room with the smell of roses. She stabbed a bit with her knife and raised it to her mouth. Johnny held his breath and sat up straight. If she liked it enough, maybe she would let him out of detention. She touched a bit of it to her tongue. Her face twisted with distaste. Johnny slumped down again and let his breath out in a long sigh.
She looked over at him and smiled again, the forced smile of someone with an upset stomach. “The strangest thing,” she said. “It tastes exactly like sauerkraut. I wasn’t ready for it.”
He slouched lower in his seat until he couldn’t slouch any further without falling out of his chair. She took the smallest of bites. She chewed and chewed, and finally swallowed.
Her stomach gurgled loudly and she clapped her hands over her mouth as she dashed from the room. Johnny followed behind to see where she went, and saw her run into the most forbidden and mysterious part of the school: the teacher’s lounge. He ran up to the door and peered through the window.
The other teachers were inside, sharing a cup of coffee. Mrs. Whitmore dashed through and into the faculty bathroom.
They gaped at her as she ran past, then went back to talking about whatever teachers talk about. Maybe discussing the advantages of plastic rulers versus wooden ones.
They were interrupted again when a young girl exited the bathroom. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old, with yellow hair and blue eyes. She could have been Mrs. Whitmore’s granddaughter. She was wearing Mrs. Whitmore’s clothes. Or trying to. Mrs. Whitmore wasn’t a large woman, but her clothes were loose on a girl that age. One hand held tightly to the waistband of her skirt and another to the collar of her shirt to keep herself together.
Johnny pressed his ear up against the door so he could hear.
“Who are you?” Principal Nelson asked.
“I’m Ellen Whitmore. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I think it’s stopped, whatever it is. I just took a bite of the strangest fruit, and then this happened.”
“A fruit? Can we see?”
Johnny ran back to the classroom before they could catch him at the door, and he was waiting attentively when the young Ellen Whitmore led the teachers back to her classroom.
“That’s it.” She pointed at the morfi. “I felt so terrible about hurting his feelings that I took a bite to cheer him up.”
“It’s a magic fruit!”
“It’s not just a fruit! It’s the fountain of youth!”
Three of the older teachers reached for it all at once. After some scratching and hair pulling, each one got a bite.
They didn’t experience the delayed reaction and sickness Mrs. Whitmore had felt. Each of them changed right then and there, each in their own way.
Mr. Truman crouched down on all fours. His skin turned green and scaly and he shrunk down until he turned into a turtle, waddling along on the ground. Miss Harrison stretched up and up until she was taller than any professional basketball player. Mr. Jones disappeared with a pop. No one’s seen or heard from him since.
The rest of the teachers backed away from the fruit as if it were a bomb.
Johnny had to find out what it was like! What would happen to him when he took a bite? He dashed for it, grabbed the morfi off the tile floor, and took a great big bite. It didn’t taste like sauerkraut at all. It tasted like pecan pie with a big dollop of whipped cream. But he didn’t seem to change at all, and he tried to hold back the disappointment.
Ellen Whitmore peered closely at him. “Do you feel a change coming on, Johnny?”
The other teachers also stared, but only the tops of their heads were visible. They were crouching behind Ellen Whitmore’s desk, in case he exploded.
He noticed a tingle in his muscles, a strength flowing into them. He grinned and grabbed the desk, hefting it up above his head. The teachers stared up at him in shock.
What else could he do now? He set the desk down gently where it belonged and ran straight for the outer wall of the school. He charged through it like it was made of paper and bounded across the playground.
He heard geese honking far overhead. The freedom they must feel with the wind blowing through their feathers, on their way to somewhere warmer. He bent his legs and jumped, not quite as hard as he could. Up and up he went until the town looked like it was a collection of models. He didn’t come back down for quite some time.
Back in the classroom, the teachers were in a panic.
“There’s no telling what it can do!” someone said.
“We’d better call the police. No! The FBI. The CIA. All of them!”
“I guess we’d better take the fruit with us,” Principal Nelson said, without much conviction.
But no one would volunteer to pick it up, so they all agreed to leave and call the proper authorities. They grabbed Mr. Truman the turtle and left with such haste that they knocked over the hamster cage. The teachers didn’t even notice, in their rush to leave.
By the time they returned the morfi fruit was gone, and so were my fellow hamsters and I. Since then I’ve done well for myself. I took advanced classes and received my high school diploma the same year as Johnny.
Why did the fruit affect each person differently? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. Mrs. Whitmore took a bite out of kindness, because she was sorry for hurting Johnny’s feelings, so the fruit affected her in a good way. But the other teachers took a bite out of greed. Johnny took a bite with the innocence of youth, so his wildest dreams came true.
What happened to the other hamsters? Well, they didn’t turn out so well as me. No ambition. They’re working dead-end jobs. Their lives never change, like they’re running in place. It’s sad, really.
Johnny and I, on the other hand, have just finished our first year at New York State. He keeps himself very busy. The crime rate has dropped in half since we moved here, and he still manages to keep his grades up. I’m pursuing a PhD in biochemistry, and he wants to go into law enforcement.
David Steffen is a writer, editor, and software engineer living in Minnesota. He runs the Submission Grinder, a free web tool for writers to track their submissiona and find new markets for their work. He edits the zine Diabolical Plots which began publishing fiction in 2015. He is also the editor of the Long List Anthology: More Stories from the Hugo Award Nomination List.
The Capekean teachers (named after the ancient Earth writer Karl Capek who coined the term ‘robots’ in his 1920 play R.U.R), were herding the students into the glade. It was late afternoon and the air was gravid. Still. Oppressive. Not even an insect dared mount a buzzing flight in this muffled wet heat. The sky’s blue seemed vast and watchful brooding over the landing site as if it were waiting for something to start. The turquoise sky was without the whisper of a cloud—except for the four slowly dispersing vapor trails of the Syndicate ships that had burned through the atmosphere to the planet nearly forty minutes ago.
Admiral Kosk sighed. Why was he the one called to do this? Why do this at all? Orders or not he could not keep the word ‘why?’ from repeatedly bubbling into his skull. He paced back and forth. Angry. Jawing his cigar as he repeatedly consulted his qnet communication channels. He looked at the gathering teachers and reminded himself they were not human, that they were machines, and that no matter how closely they imitated sentience they were not—so said all the prophets. It must be true. Right?
He knew this bewitching planet well. He had gone to school here, no, more than that, he had been raised here from age six to twelve. Taught by these teachers. He had played ‘Conic Raider and Primus Settler’ with this best friend Zad in the woods ringing the large meadow in which they had just landed. He had floated down the nearby river Neflon on an air filled donut and floated high above its forests in hot air balloons while studying canopy ecology in its equatorial rainforests. His fondest memories had all happened here—maybe the most carefree and happy time of his life.
His mind instantly jumped when he and his little friend Jinx had first kissed in this very glade. Was that really over forty-five years ago? Much had passed since. He looked at the gathered students; the younger ones were taking it in stride, chatting among themselves, but the older ones looked confused and perturbed. They had never seen the military land here. Ever. They had to suspect something was up.
The Admiral uplinked onto the military bands and checked the time. This was taking too long. The suzerain should be here already and several cohorts of children were still missing, likely on field excursions. It was not winter, so none should be off exploring the southern hemisphere’s thousands of miles of beaches. If they were, it would take hours to round them up. He checked the time again. There was really no hurry, but even so, he wanted this to be over as soon as possible. It was not pleasant duty. Indeed, ugly, horrid duty. He found himself almost sick in ways unbecoming of a soldier of the Dawkist Syndicate. Orders were orders, however. He would do what was asked. He always had.
Because he was an orthodox Dawkist, he did not have gene-integrated digital and conscious signaling enabled. He linked with his Second, “After the children are onboard, on my signal strike.”
“Any sign of possible resistance? Or is it as intelligence reported?”
The Admiral stared coldly at this officer as if he might shoot him.
He backed away chastened, “Right. They are just teachers.”
He looked across the field and saw Bla’a Kitra. When he was a student here, she had been his favorite teacher. If anyone could have convinced him that the prophets were wrong about Capeks lacking consciousness, it would have been her. His mind brought up memories he would have rather not visited at this moment. Recollections of when together, they—along with four others whose names have melted into the crevasses of lost memories—backpacked for two months through the Dakure Plain. They made themselves invisible for most of the trip with Hydoplex cloaks—walking among the giant predators and herd beasts that had evolved on this planet—a magical experience. At night, they would look at the stars scattered and burning through the striking expanse of the Nipmouse Nebula. It blazed orange and red across nearly the entire southern sky. The stories she would tell! Myths from the human past. Stories, she explained, provided meaning through the epochs of their cultural development on Earth. He remembered she discoursed on how humans had evolved on plains very much like this one; how the emergence of intelligence had then expanded into the Capekean event when artificial intelligence became actual intelligence and a new evolution emerged as technology reached into the quantum world and a new kind of sentience bubbled into existence. She spoke of how the heavens were now as full of thought as it is of stars.
All of it was heresy of course. The teachers were not supposed to talk about the rise of the Capeks to the Dawkist children, whose most fundamental belief was that humans were the only conscious beings in the universe. The Capeks were machines. Sophisticated machines, true, ones that mimicked real intelligence magnificently, but machines nevertheless. Sometimes, however, there in the dark, under stars, a kind of wonder took over making everything okay to talk about, as if all rules, ethics, norms, and such were set aside and imagination allowed to blaze into the firelight of speculation.
It was under that sky that he had almost abandoned Dawkism. How could this creature beside him speaking so clearly, so rationally—a being so filled with wonder and thought toying with the mysteries, not be conscious? The teachers rarely let their guard down like that, but it happened occasionally and people tolerated it. Most adults realized that at some point in their children’s lives they would be confronted with doubts about the singularity of consciousness and its provenance only in humans. Many fell into error. Tempted to think of the tick-tocks as sentient creatures. Although first created by humans, they had since evolved into myriad new forms with new capacities, abilities, and intelligences.
Of course, at a school taught and staffed by the human-mimic Capeks, it was inevitable that some students would be seduced by their clever mimicry of sentience. But the Dawkist council felt that those who did emerge unscathed were the stronger for it, hence sending their best and brightest children to the Academe-on-Schule. Like Admiral Kosk himself. If he remembered right, two of his four companions on that excursion had betrayed the Dawkist vision.
Alice sits on the edge of the sofa, almost impervious to the whispers of the men and women dressed in mourning clothes milling about in the living room. The drapes are drawn for the somber occasion. Alice’s hands are folded in her lap, her brown hair long and parted. Her clothes are simple: a plain but tailored dress and a pair of glossy black shoes.
“Can you even imagine?”
One woman’s words slip between the guests to find their way to her, but she doesn’t flinch. She knows not to react when she’s unsure of how, that much has always been a given. A conservative choice, to be sure, but that, too, is by design.
Julie has died. Alice knows that, too: her foster mother, three days ago, in a car accident, the fatal combination of a failed airbag deployment and a slow-reacting holdout in the other car. A human driver. Other whispers in the room say there will be a lawsuit, that it’s unbelievable that anyone is still allowed to drive their own cars these days, that there ought to be a law.
“And poor Emmet,” they say. Her foster father. “Can you even imagine?”
“Do you think they’ll take it away?”
Another beautiful morning began on Bannanatattatantsia. The red sun of morning burst like a fireball over the horizon, exploding in pink and orange rays across the sky. But Calligraphy Shopworn barely noticed. She was too busy cleaning the blood and gore from her sheets. A new iron spire had forced its way out of her back during the night, taking its place among the others along her spine.
She gathered the bloody sheets. Later she could get some more from Mrs. TVscreen. Calli lumped her remaining bedding into the pile of rags she called her bed. It wasn’t one, really. No real bed could accommodate the weight and bulk of her body’s changing form. The pile just occupied a warm corner of her dome by an open window. Through it, she had a clear view of the nearly unspoiled beauty of this lonely pebble of a planet. Anything to distract her from her unending agony. Someone knocked at her door.
“Come in,” she said.
Vash Graylighting entered. Calli couldn’t help smiling as she went back to her cleaning. Vash came to see her almost every morning, another distraction from the pain. He towered over her, but everyone seemed tall from Calli’s low point of view on her hover cart. She liked to think of Vash as being especially tall, though. He had cold eyes, but a warm smile; and among the altered men and women of this planet, he appeared almost normal, not as disfigured as she.
“Morning, Calli, I–” he began, but a mumbling beneath his clothes interrupted him. He slapped his arms and sides, and the mumbling stopped. “I wondered if you had some more rags I could use.” He leaned against the corrugated metal wall in that casual way Calli liked.
She smiled and knew he could get rags the same way she could. He simply made an excuse to see her. “You can have some of these. They have blood on them, though.”
“I don’t need them to be clean.” He brushed his hand over his baggy coat.
Calli pressed a few buttons on the control unit by her arm, and the hover cart that held her elephantine bulk rose a few feet with the subtlest of hums. Operating the hover cart tired her because she only had the use of one arm, the other having weeks before been converted into a sort of archway, or buttress; she didn’t know what to call that part of the cathedral growing from her back. She said to Vash, “I thought about ordering a few things from Mrs. TVscreen. Would you like to come?”
“Sure.” Vash looked her over.
If more of her skin had been visible, Calli would have blushed. She could feel heat rush over her in waves.
“You look different. Have you done something to the rose window?”
Her hand instinctively covered her chest and the violet glass there. “No, the spire of another tower came through last night. I was cleaning the mess before you arrived.”
“Ah, you know, Calli, you’re really turning into a beautiful cathedral.”
“Thanks,” she said. She knew he meant well.
It was the perfect day to walk down to the river and see what was left of the dead metal, rusting away since the war. The weather was about like today, crisp and dry. Some folks whispered that some of it still walked, moved, even hunted, but just like you, we were sure that was all lies.
That’s why we wanted to see The Bottom for ourselves, like you two do.
First, we had to ditch Grandpa. That chance appeared when he stopped with his hand on the front gate. He held it halfway open and turned his head, laughing to himself. “Almost forgot my cane.”
He turned around and went back in the house. I looked at Tommy and tilted my head towards the road. “Let’s just go.”
Tommy looked out at the red leaves dancing on the pavement, then back over his shoulder. Mama stood watching from the front window. “She’d whip us if we did.”
“How are we ever gonna get to the Bottom with him along?”
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe we just scout it out today. A recon mission.”
Sometimes, he had good ideas. For a ten year-old. “Then go back later?” I said.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The old wood of the front stoop groaned as Grandpa made his way down the stairs. He took the weight off his bad leg and leaned on his cane. “What’s it going to be today?”
Tommy nodded for me to ask. I said, “Can we go see Shockoe Bottom?”
Grandpa said, “Why would you want to go down there?”
“Just to the bridge,” said Tommy.
I added, “Mama said we could.” She hadn’t.
Grandpa looked back at Mama through the window. She waved and smiled. He considered the request and shrugged. “Well then, let’s go.”
We set out down the road, Grandpa behind us. He was in fine enough shape, except for his leg. Mama told us he hurt it in the war. Grandpa said he had arthritis. Tommy and I went back and forth on who we believed. Either way, we didn’t believe any of the stories about metal walking around in The Bottom. Between you and me, I wish we had.
Mama said that was where Richmond used to go on the weekends. Before the war. When the metal marched into town, it came in from the west and drove the whole city downhill, trapping thousands against the flood wall.
We walked through the burned out buildings and deserted businesses, down Hull Street to the James River. We crossed over the rusted spans of Mayo bridge and got a good look at what used to be downtown Richmond. The bare girders in the buildings stuck up so high in the sky I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t fall over, but Grandpa acted like they weren’t there. He just limped along slow and steady behind us.
We had heard about a spot just over the bridge where the flood wall joined up with the barricade. Story was, you could get over the wall and go down into The Bottom.
Tommy saw it first. We crossed from the bridge onto solid ground and he let out a low half whistle. He flicked his eyes in that direction. A school bus sat on four flat tires, next to the wall. He thought he was quiet, but Grandpa heard.
“So, that’s why we’re out here,” he said.
I felt the red creep into my cheeks. “What?”
“You two want to see The Bottom?”
Tommy turned away from the bus. “No, I was whistling because… Because-”
Grandpa said, “You didn’t come out here to get a look over the wall?”
I gulped. “Well. It is right there. We could just climb up and look.”
Grandpa grunted and headed for the bus. He pushed the door open and went up the cracked rubber steps. He used his cane to push the remnants of the windshield out onto the hood. Steadying himself against the back of the driver’s seat, he climbed over the dashboard. Glass crunched under his feet, the hood groaned under his weight. We followed after and helped him up onto the roof. A rusty ladder missing one rung stretched across the two-foot gap between the wall and the bus. We took turns crawling across, and then stood up on the other side. The concrete of the flood wall crunched and flaked under our shoes, little pebbles bounced down and clattered on the ground.
We looked out into The Bottom. More than anything, it was empty. Not scary. Just empty. Weeds grew everywhere. Tree roots cracked the sidewalks. Cars without drivers blocked the streets. A sunflower grew through a hole in a roof of a burned out van. Piles of smashed furniture and boards blocked the fronts of some buildings. The other buildings gaped open, like mouths with their teeth knocked out.
Grandpa picked his way down the piled up concrete and palettes to the ground. We went after him. He pointed out some sharpened rebar sticking out of the pile.
“Look out for that,” he said.
Tommy rolled his eyes.