Kennit Martin charged into the playground like a tumbleweed on a mission. “Hey Jeff!” he yelled, still thirty feet away from me. “Steenrud’s bought a whole gallon of gasoline!” He gulped air. “I was at the post office when the creeper came! He said he’s already put the wheels on!”
I threw my boomerang down by the climbing frame. Across the playground, kids dropped bats and balls, put VR glasses and dolls into backpacks. Our lazy summer afternoon had just come into focus.
Old Mr. Steenrud had the only car in town. Sure, there were some biodiesel tractors and electric carts, and the big cargo creepers that crawled slowly along the rough roads. But those weren’t exciting, not like a real old-fashioned car.
It was a Chevrolet, red as blood, and about fifty years old. It lived inside his barn, up on blocks, wheels stacked beside it like giant checkers, and every kid in town was in awe of it. Its speedometer went up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, ten times as fast as a tractor. Twenty-four hours… I did the multiplication. Why, in one day, it could go anywhere! Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg… maybe even Alaska or Oz!
In ones and twos, kids left the playground, all heading past the drugstore toward the Steenrud place. Soon there was nobody left but me and Luther Petersen. “Come on, Luther!” I said. “Bet he gives us all rides!”
He scuffed a shoe in the dust. “Can’t.”
“C’mon, it’s not far!”
“My mom’d kill me, Jeff. She hates cars. She says they’re why the climate’s in such a mess today.”
“You could come and just watch.”
“Better not.” He turned and walked off towards his home. I felt sorry and relieved and guilty all at the same time: I’d been wondering if being a real friend might mean staying and watching with Luther instead of riding in the car myself, and I didn’t think I could do that.
Outside Steenrud’s barn, it was almost like the county fair had come early. Not just kids, grownups too. Horses tethered everywhere. People had brought plates of cookies and pitchers of lemonade. Oranges and lemons were big crops around there in those days; now they grow most of them up in Canada. I got a gingersnap and a glass of lemonade, and joined the long line. I thought of putting my VR glasses on while I waited, but didn’t. This was better than any of my games.
Mr. Steenrud was already giving people rides, circling the dirt track around the edge of his big field. I stood there, sipped the thin tart lemonade, and watched. There was no wind. Dust and blue smoke hung in the air, harsh and exciting.
Behind me, Ms. Steenrud was talking to somebody. “Never thought I’d see it again, Angie. Six years back he bought some gasoline from somebody, and next day he was swearing fit to bust. Crap wasn’t gasoline at all, it was some kind of cleaning solvent. Gummed her up so bad it took him three months to fix. He swore, if he couldn’t get proper gasoline anymore, he’d just leave her on the blocks. ‘Let the old girl rust in peace,’ he said. But looks like he’s found some. Still won’t tell me what he paid for it.” She laughed, but she didn’t sound quite happy.
Finally it was my turn, with the very last group. The car rolled up and stopped where we were waiting, the red paint gleaming in the warm March sun. Up close, you could see where it had been touched up with paint that wasn’t so shiny, and the front window was cracked. The doors creaked open, and the other passengers lingered for one last moment, then climbed carefully out. They were a few yards away from the car before they started chattering again.
And then we scrambled in. I’d imagined sitting in front, but Amie Telford got to do that. Paul Hartshorne’s dad got in back, in the middle, one foot straddled on each side of a big bump in the floor; I got one window and Paul had the other. Inside, it smelled of straw and horse manure, like the barn. We closed the doors. Mr. Steenrud turned around with a grin.
“Seatbelts all done up? It’s the law!” We fiddled with the awkward metal buckles. He nodded approval. “That’s right, that’s how you do it.”
I reached out to touch a little silver switch on the door. He shook his head.
“Better leave those windows down, the air conditioner hasn’t worked for years.” He grinned and faced forward again.
He pushed on the black steering wheel, and there was a loud honk, just like in the videos. He did something, water squirted onto the front window and two skinny black arms wiped it off again, leaving clean semicircles on the dusty window. The car coughed, and started to make a long, low purr, like a giant cat. And then we started to move.
It felt cooler almost immediately. We went faster and faster. I strained forward to look through the gap between the front seats. The red needle of the speedometer pointed to twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t imagine what a hundred and fifty would be like. We rattled over the bumps in the dirt track, and I was James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger or somebody, in an old action video. And we hung out the windows, and pointed our fingers like guns, and felt the wind in our faces, and tried to forget what we’d heard about cars making you sick to your stomach.
We went all round the field twice, and partway round again. Then the engine started to hesitate and stutter and went quiet. The car slowed and stopped.
“Sorry, kids!” said Mr. Steenrud. “Think the gas just ran out.” He tried the starter again, but it just coughed. He bent down and did something else, and the red metal lid ahead of the front window jumped a bit. He got out, walked around to the front, and opened it.
We couldn’t see anything with it up, so we climbed out too, and came around to look. Inside, the front of the car was full of strange shapes in shiny metal and black plastic. What he was looking at was a metal gallon can, with a hose rigged to it with a pipe clamp.
He shook the can; there was no sound but the dry whack of the hose against one of the metal parts. “Yep, that’s it. She’s out. Nothing left. Ride’s over.” His voice was quiet, as if we weren’t there and he was talking to himself.
Back by the barn, a bunch of the others had noticed that the car had stopped. A straggle of grownups and kids were on their way across the field to help.
“Something wrong, Bill?” one of the men asked, when they got there.
“No, she’s fine. Just out of gas,” Mr. Steenrud said. He was still smiling, but he looked tired from all the driving, and his eyes were red from the dust.
Gently, he lowered the lid down. It clunked softly into place. Then he climbed back behind the black steering wheel, and closed his door, and we all pushed the car back to the barn, like a parade.
Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. Apart from math and writing, he enjoys hiking, cycling,
music and fencing. His stories have appeared in Nature, AE, and other publications.
I am running.
I am running down a hallway.
I am running down a hallway and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.
I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.
The doctor was in on it the whole time. He pretended to be interested, maybe concerned. But not scared. Not worried. He talked about bioluminescence, about algae that makes whole stretches of coastline glow in the dark. He said “perfectly rational explanation” several times.
Then he told me to relax. He told me I could lie down. He even adjusted the bed for me. “I thought only nurses do that,” I told him. I don’t know if he even heard what I said; the tissue against my nose muffled my words.
He smiled absently, said, “I’m gonna switch out the light so you can rest,” and left the room.
An hour before, I thought I’d never sleep again. But it’s amazing what a dim room and cool air can do.
“Murphy, wake up.” The soft female voice seemed distant.
He tried to roll and found himself restrained.
“Let us disconnect those,” she said.
He cracked an eyelid. The gray, curved interior of his hibernation chamber crowded him.
“What?” he croaked.
“There is a problem,” responded the voice. It represented the collective colony-ship Caretaker Programs.
“Why did I take this job?” he muttered.
“You are the Chief Mechanic,” she said.
He groaned. That wasn’t it. He’d wanted to prove himself. But to whom? His idiot engineer stepfather? His snooty, middle-management-drone ex? “It’s a long-term commitment,” they’d both warned with identical mock concern. As if he couldn’t think for himself. As if this was just another big mistake. Well to hell with them and everyone else that made it possible to feel lonely in the midst of twenty-billion people. He didn’t need them.
Here, he had purpose. He was Chief Mechanic. On Aberdeen Ceti Four he would be needed. He could start over without the muddle of uncertainties. He knew his job. No more mistakes. No more regrets.
Murphy flexed and released his muscles. They ached, but otherwise responded well. “How long did I sleep this time?”
“Seriously?” The mission was only 126 years old!
He cursed the company and its corner-cutting bean counters. Cheap bastards.
Soft pads released tender tissue and retreated into protective compartments. He punched the yellow easy-release panel. His tube hissed open.
“I envy you,” he said, stretching against post-suspension fatigue.
“You don’t tire.”
“All systems suffer entropy.”
“But you don’t feel it.”
“What broke this time?”
“Primary thruster one’s containment field is failing.”
Murphy shuffled to a console. The thruster reading was 42%.
Murphy toggled to the containment readings—15%. The ship trailed a wide path of radiation.
“What caused this?”
“The south receptor failed to operate to specifications. The field collapsed.”
“So switch to backup.”
“The present unit is the backup.”
“They both failed? Show the analysis.”
The numbers suggested a materials failure—a problem that could not be repaired en route. Murphy returned to the emission display. A huge radiation cone fanned from the thruster.
“Can we increase the others to compensate?”
New calculations appeared. “Not for the entire flight,” she said.
He studied the figures. They could handle the extra load for about 240 years. “Show dispersal if thruster one operated at 100% without containment.”
The cone brightened, but the acceleration kept the ship safely ahead of it.
“That looks okay,” he said.
“It is prohibited to use a containment-free thruster at that power level.”
Murphy rolled his eyes. “Containment regulations are for in-system flight … to protect nearby populations and intersecting ship routes.” You moron.
He examined the hypothetical thruster wear. Removing containment actually increased its longevity. Not that it was enough. At mid-journey the ship would pivot to decelerate, placing the entire payload—cargo, passengers and crew—smack in the middle of that lethal cone. He couldn’t use thruster one for deceleration, but the remaining thrusters alone would wear out before the end.
He considered waking the flight engineer. But an idea struck. “What can we get from thruster one if it only has to last another 360 years?”
The screen displayed an output range with corresponding probabilities of catastrophic failure at year 360—half way. Until then thruster one could operate at 160%.
“If we choose 160% for 360 years, and the remaining thrusters are conserved proportionately to maintain standard acceleration, what is the probability the surviving thrusters could handle deceleration to target, considering the reduced wear?”
The screen changed again. He smiled.
“Perfect,” he said. “Here’s the new plan: remove one’s containment entirely, take it up to 160%, and—”
Three quick tones sequenced the standard “error” signal. “Without containment, thruster one cannot exceed 30% of its standard operating output.”
“Sure it can. The radiation spreads away from the ship.”
“Those performance specifications cannot be attained. They are outside operational parameters.”
“No, they’re not. You’re enforcing a stupid safety rule. It’s got no application here. We’re deep in untraveled interstellar space. It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave in our wake.”
“We cannot exceed established parameters.”
“Safety override requires approval of a majority of administrators.”
Murphy folded his arms as the Caretaker Programs repeated the statement like a dimwitted child. He considered his options. The Caretaker Programs would follow rules unfailingly—into the heart of a supernova if that’s where it led.
“How many administrators are there?”
“There are currently 12 administrators.”
“And a majority of them would be …”
Crap. Murphy rubbed his neck. Despite a 19-year rest he felt exhausted, and the thought of waking six crewmembers to outvote a computer amplified his fatigue.
“You said currently?” he asked. “Has it changed?”
“There were four at startup.”
He strummed his fingers on the console. “Can I add or delete administrators?”
“How many can there be for a majority of one?”
“There can only be one administrator for a single administrator to be a majority of administrators.”
He tightened his jaw. I hope the Captain doesn’t review this log.
Murphy straightened. “Fine. Delete as administrators each of the following …” He touched the screen—one name at a time—except his.
“Done,” she said.
Murphy whistled softly. He was not a praying man, but he felt the urge now. If he keeled over with a stroke, the colony would be in sorry shape. What lame-brained designer thought it was okay to risk administrator abuse, but not okay to override inapplicable safety protocols? Of course, in Murphy’s experience, engineers and management shared one trait unfailingly: an appalling lack of common sense.
“If I die,” he whispered, not praying, per se, but the closest he’d come in many long years, “bring me back.” He drew a deep breath, and then raised his voice, addressing the Caretaker Programs. “Now, override safety protocol governing thruster power without a containment field.”
“Please specify limiting parameters.”
“No limiting parameters. Override every such protocol.”
“Bring thruster one to 160%; drop its containment entirely; lower thrusters two, three and four to 68%; maintain those levels until you start halfway procedures.” He cleared his throat and spoke with deliberate care. “Now listen carefully—before you turn the ship around, turn thruster one off! You got that? And shut it down permanently. It is not to be used during deceleration. Put the deceleration load entirely on thrusters two, three and four. Do you understand?”
He regretted his condescending tone. The Caretaker Programs were not idiots. They were state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. But they took things so literally.
“Now,” he said, relaxing. “Before I hibernate again, give me status of all major systems, and make me a snack.”
Most systems were well-within spec with only minor problems on the horizon. He walked the ship and visually inspected the pumps and actuators showing signs of premature fatigue. His best guess was that at least two of them would fail in the next 100 years. Everything else looked fine.
“Okay. Don’t wake me if you don’t have to. But no matter what, make sure we get there safely.”
“Please specify limiting parameters.”
He shook his head. He had already been over this. “No. You don’t understand. Are there any living things within twelve parsecs of our location?”
“—or within 12 parsecs of any point along our path?”
“Right. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Safety protocols that do not involve the safety of this ship and its crew and passengers don’t matter. They’re dangerous and unnecessary limitations. Override all of that.”
“That would include the Von Neumann subsystems.”
“That includes every system. This ship and its mission—that’s all you need to worry about. Get us there safe and sound. At all cost. Don’t cut corners. Okay?”
The well water ran brown and grimy between my fingers. My eyes traveled to the well itself in time to catch the glowing jewels studding the well’s bricks winking out in a solid wave from the bottom up. Without the jewels, bricks toppled down the shaft and splashed in the thick water while others rolled lifelessly onto the street. Soon the water source was filled to the top with red sandstone and cracked brick, lifeless amethyst and topaz glinting in the morning sun.
I stumbled backward, my hand still coated with soiled water. People–Sorcerers–gathered around at the noise. Their shouts and talk reached my ears as a confused mess, but I caught one question: “Who was the last to use it?”
I dropped the pails and yoke, and I ran.
My mind buzzed with fines I couldn’t pay or days alone in a dark room until the Sorcerers thought I wouldn’t do it again. I would get back to the Village now, wait a little, then fetch water at another well. Nobody would know. I was too old for it, but as I ran, I pulled my shawl up over my head so that it was low over my eyebrows. Then nobody would see the Mark on my forehead, the circle shot through with two overlapping crosses. It was the glyph denoting the immortality spell, the spell only Sorcerers should have. My mother put it on me, got herself executed, and made me alone.
A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. My breath turned solid in my throat. It was a royal soldier, clad in a rich violet robe sewn heavy with turquoise and tiger’s eye. The cloak shimmered with unnatural light from each precious stone carved with protection and strength spells. I blinked hard. The cloak was unsettling.
“I don’t think we need any other evidence regarding who is responsible?” he said. “You were running away so fast.”
I shook my head, but I’ve never had the talent to lie. The panic rose, turned my face hot, and the words fell out. “My foster mother sent me to get water–that’s all I was doing, I swear, sir. I pulled out the pail and the water was bad and then it all fell down–”
“Why don’t you come with me? Chief Fullak has been wanting to discuss your talents.”
“Talents? But I didn’t–”
Something white and big as a horse swooped down from a nearby rooftop and knocked both of us off our feet.
Lights swam in my vision–I landed hard on my side–and silence engulfed the little square where we stood. As I blinked my streaming eyes, the Sorcerer servants who had been chatting nearby shook their heads and left. The few other Villagers, identifiable by their plain woven shawls and robes like mine, cleared out a little more anxiously.
I was alone in the square with a furious plum-faced soldier and one white, rose-eyed Embrizid.
“You’re getting too big for that, Tulkot,” I muttered to the creature as I clutched my side and lurched myself into a sitting position. “You’re no hatchling.”
The soldier struggled to his feet. His black hair escaped from the braids crowning his head, and the jeweled cloak slipped off one brown shoulder. He stuttered angrily, shooting looks alternately at Tulkot and me, as if deciding where to direct his rage.
Tulkot snarled at him. It wasn’t terribly intimidating coming from a half-grown Embrizid, but the soldier flinched anyway.
“You–you’re not supposed to associate with Embrizid. If that’s how you collapsed the well, then–”
“Keep yourself under control,” the soldier said with a shaking voice as he backed away. “If you fiddle with another spell, there’ll be punishment for you. You’ll have a long sit in a cold room.”
He gave a curt nod, turned on his heel, and left.
“There,” said Tulkot. “With me here, they’ll fear you and your talents.”
I snorted. “It’s just awful luck, nothing more. You didn’t help.”
I brushed off my knees and started back toward the Village. Tulkot pranced beside me, chattering about Sorcerer gossip in his gravelly Embrizid voice. His white coloring was rare and handsome, and he would be grand when he grew out of his gawkiness. Like all Embrizid, he was a four-legged, winged creature, coated thick with feathers. His face was elongated and framed with a fanned, grandiose mane. Large erect ears poked from his crown of feathers, and a long tail trailed behind him. His five-fingered feet were reminiscent of human hands, save for the long, sharp claws extending from each digit.
“–hunters killing us off in the desert–”
I frowned. “Wait–what did you say?”
Tulkot shook his mane in irritation. “Sar said hunters are killing some of the Embrizid. That’s why things collapse. The spells break. A couple other bits of wall and statues came down a week ago.”
Sar was king of the Embrizid. He consulted with our own Chief Fullak and organized the Embrizid’s work with human Sorcerers in the Upper district. Embrizid provided the Sorcerers with the magic to perform spells.
“What hunters?” I asked. “Only Gearda can survive in the desert, and that’s with the heaps of spells over Minunaga to keep the desert out.”
“No one’s seen them, but Embrizid go out to hunt, and they don’t come back. Embrizid don’t die all too often, so we notice. And anyways, people are smart… maybe some from the west brought enough water and food. They could live in the desert.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I think Sar’s right.”
“Then why doesn’t anyone tell Fullak? Fullak would know what to do about hunters. I don’t want to keep getting blamed.”
“He doesn’t believe Sar,” said Tulkot, and he tossed his head.
He looked to the sun which was high over the horizon by now.
“I have to go–I have to study with the Sorcerer students today.”
“Go on,” I said. “I’ll find you later.”
Tulkot displayed his sharp teeth in a silent Embrizid laugh. “I always find you first.”
He pranced off in the opposite direction and took to the sky. As I watched, I felt a pang of jealousy for the student who got to work with him.
Villagers had to be careful about being seen with an Embrizid too much. If an Embrizid wanted to talk to you, that was fine, but Villagers never sought them out on their own, at least not in the open.
When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies’ clothing store where I work. If I hadn’t paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger’s helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.
A knack bomb hit. I’d never been this close before. I’d been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King’s day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king’s head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?
It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.
Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says. She knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don’t call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won’t pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.
“Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line.” She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned; with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.
I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.
I didn’t know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o’clock.
Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn’t like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.
The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you’ve stood up too fast.
Angelique looked at me oddly.
“What?” I said.
She gestured along my body. “I think this is my best work to date,” she said, awe in her voice. “Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here.” She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.
Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.
A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn’t look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.
“Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos.”
The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hm.
I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.
I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.
I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of grace and elegance in the mirror I’d never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.
I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.
Mark’s next door neighbour and business partner Pat kept telling him that power flowed through his veins. He took a breath and closed his eyes, trying to will the power back out again and into the ash wand in his outstretched hand. He pointed it at Pat’s door. A narrow beam of blue light squeezed out of the end and hit the lock. Nothing happened. Sighing, he folded the wand and put it in his pocket. He took out his key and let himself into her house.
He heard her moving around in the kitchen, back from sorting out the invasion of reptilian arsonists in a garden in Llandudno the day before, while he had expelled a banshee from a pub in Macclesfield. This morning’s job was to sort out an elderly-care home with a spirit infestation. Mark opened the kitchen door.
Pat coughed, wafting her hand at a cloud of green fumes. “Damn, they’re still moving,” she said.
Mark peered through the smoke. Two dragons, one red, one green, as iridescent as hummingbirds, each about an inch long, stood in the palm of her hand hissing at each other.
“They might be tiny but they’d incinerated every plant in that,” Pat said. One dragon snorted, and shot a tiny flare the size of a match flame towards the other. “Help me separate them.” She pushed her hand towards Mark.
He picked up the green one with his forefinger and thumb. “I’ll put them in the safe.”
“No room, there’s a backlog of entities stuck in there, waiting for me to get the chance to dispose of them.”
“Get the dragons to set each other alight and burn each other up.”
“That won’t work,” she said. “An entity can’t destroy another entity. If they could we’d be out of a job. I was trying to find a way round the space problem using this new incantation I picked up online. Instead of you having to exorcise them and put them in containment, it renders them immobile and you can leave them anywhere.”
“Wouldn’t it get a little cluttered after a while?”
“No, apparently they fade away gradually over a few hours. At least, that’s what it said on the website.”
“Seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”
Pat moved her hand away as her dragon flamed at the one Mark held. She shook her head. “I think it should make things easier. Exorcising a recalcitrant entity the usual way can be exhausting. It causes something like a bad hangover, without any of the pleasure of the night before.”
“I’ve felt that. Bit like 24 hour flu?”
Pat nodded. “Consider it an occupational hazard. But this new method doesn’t seem to work, the dragons are still moving about. Good job I tested it on something small.”
Mark looked at Pat’s notebook open on the table, the dragon still held between two fingers. “You should have printed the thing out instead of copying it. This looks like an inky spider’s crawled over the page.” He held the green dragon at arm’s length and read the incantation. This time, red smoke billowed. As it cleared, he saw the red dragon motionless on Pat’s palm. She picked it up by a wing.
“I can’t read my own writing,” she said. “Well done.” She put the dragon on a shelf next to a pile of recipe books. “You stay there, Boyo. We’ve got work to do.” Mark put the green one next to it. They stood, as immobile as toys. Pat picked up her car keys. They got into the car, she slipped her stiletto heels off and they drove away.
The first few years were fuzzy. After all, she wasn’t truly alive yet. She was told what she could see, insofar as it was seeing when all you were was a bunch of sensors, and she recorded what she saw in her memory banks, ready for the pilot to access if she ever wanted to.
Occasionally the pilot would put in random commands that confused her, or would confuse her if she was capable of emotions like confusion. She returned those commands with an error message, or a query. Sometimes it was simply a mistype, and the error was corrected, and the command was executed. Other times there was no repeat of the command and there was the equivalent of silence. She never found out what those commands were supposed to be.
The pilot called her Georgie, and she thought of that as her name, once she started to be able to think.
She was an information bank. The pilot asked her questions. She asked her to map the surrounding asteroids, so they could pilot a course through them without damaging the ship, and so she did that. After a time the pilot would input new codes, so that instead of simply giving the locations of the asteroids, Georgie could plot the course herself.
New codes were exciting. Or they would be exciting if Georgie knew how to get excited. The first few years those new codes were all to do with the ship and how to pilot it. How to judge fuel levels from the amount of thrust that had been used, how to measure the levels of radiation pouring in through their crude shielding, how to time to the second how long the pilot could spend away from station before she suffered from radiation poisoning.
It was all about computing time and judging distance and working out exactly how much a human body could take in the belt. It was a surprisingly large amount. Humans were resilient.
In the third year, the pilot gave Georgie a voice and started to program her to talk back.
In the deep black, days away from station, it was nice to hear a voice.
“What do you think, Georgie. This gonna be a big find?”
“Past data and the density readings we are receiving would suggest that the probability of a large uranium deposit is approximately 37%.”
The pilot sat in a chair that was directly in front of what Georgie thought of as her head. She could not see the pilot, of course — not in the way that humans did. She did not have eyes. But she could hear, and she could approximate the position of the pilot’s face. She had even learned how to recognize expressions.
She remembered the first time she asked questions about it.
“Query: for what reason do humans move their bodies so much when they talk?”
They were in dock and the pilot had just finished negotiating a price for the location of a find they had made. A small one, but enough to keep the ship fueled and supplied for a few more months. The pilot liked to say they lived hand-to-mouth. Georgie wasn’t sure what that meant, although she speculated that it was something to do with food.
“Did you just ask a question, Georgie?”
“You programmed me with the ability to ask questions at random intervals, Annie.”
“I did. I just wasn’t sure you were ever going to.”
“I am curious.”
“That is the expression you taught me to use when I wished to ask a question, Annie.”
The pilot sighed. “I guess I did. What was the question again?”
“I wished to know why humans move their faces and bodies so much when they talk.”
The pilot sat in the pilot’s chair, her face moving into expressions one after another. “Like this?”
The pilot’s face settled on one expression, then she started keying in commands. “How about I program you with some facial recognition protocols, Georgie? Then you can watch the miners and tell me when they’re lying to me.”
“It would be a satisfactory answer to my query, Annie.”
We were just going to bed when the townfolk came, led by Mrs. Hutch with her know-all voice.
I climbed up the cabin ladder to the loft, careful to curl my toes over the rough beams of wood. Ma had fallen off the stairs just a week ago, and now she slept downstairs on the sofa. The cabin was just one big room, so she could still yell up at me and Minn to make us quiet down.
Minnie had the covers pulled up over her head. I could see her eyes shining out from a little hole, like a cat in her cave.
“Move over, Minn.” I swung my legs under the covers. She scooted back, and I pressed my feet against her thighs.
Minnie wrapped her hands around my feet. Their warmth prickled. “So cold!”
The underside of the covers twinkled with little points of light. Minnie touched her finger to the sheet. When she pulled it back there was a warm, red star there. She made two rectangles, a star in each corner of the boxes. An arc of stars lead from the bottom of one rectangle to the center of the other. My feet in Minnie’s hands.
“The two sisters.” Minnie pulled her hand away from the sheet, and I stared at our constellation. I wished I’d be able to see it when we went outside. But we were all earth-bound for now.
There was a knock on the door. I could hear voices outside. A few shouts.
I felt Minnie’s nose on my head, the warm air from her lungs. But after a minute my head started to get cold, and I couldn’t tell her breath from the outside air that flooded in as Ma opened the door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Hutch.” Ma always spoke like a town person, all polite and quiet, even when she was mad.
Minnie and I watched from the loft, the blanket covering all but our eyes.
Mrs. Hutch bustled in and sat in the big rocking chair. Ma’s chair.
“How’s the leg mending?” She hadn’t even taken off her boots at the door. Little bits of snow started falling from the toes, melting into water that would make our thin carpet smell sweet-sick.
Ma didn’t sit down. She rested her hand on the windowsill, her fingers touching the bit of frost on the pane that had been there since winter started six months ago.
“It’s on its way. Another week –”
“Another week and we’ll have already gone to each other’s throats.”
Minn growled, her lip arched. I put my hands on her arms, whispered no one listened to Mrs. Hutch no ways, but it took a glance from Ma to quiet her.
When Minn was silent Ma turned back to the woman in her chair. “We can bring in more Aurora. The full moon is on her way – it will be bright as lamplight outside.”
Mrs. Hutch shook her head, her fur bonnet still edged with frost. “This winter has gone on long enough.”
She turned to the loft and we ducked back under the covers. “Lux, come down.”
Minn crossed her eyes and made a face and laughing made me feel more brave, even if I had to laugh quiet, beneath my hand.
I wiped my feet on the carpet so the sweat wouldn’t make me slip, and went down careful, rung by rung.
Mrs. Hutch waved her hand at me, telling me to come close until my feet were right next to hers. Her face was red from the wind, with wrinkles worn into her skin like tiny roads. Beautiful eyes. Like the winter moon or maybe the summer sky, both kind of together.
She looked at me for a long time, so long I looked over to Ma to see if I could go. But Ma wasn’t even looking at me. She was watching Minn, who’d pulled her head out of the blanket and had curled her fingers over the railing.
That’s when she did it – slapped the palm of her hand straight onto my chest. “Lux, light-bringer, I charge you to change the seasons.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” she muttered through clenched teeth as she heard him begin that awful scrape of sliding Styrofoam boards. He was attempting to remove the slabs of (probably fucking fake) wood from the box to assemble the first piece of furniture they would own together as a married couple, the Ikea coffee table, which she’d hated upon first seeing in the catalogue—it was unoriginal and for some reason dauntingly despairing—but had been advised by her mother that it was “certainly worth the money.” Katharine thought nothing was ever “worth the money.” Fearing marriage to be another piece of evidence to add to this empirical absolute, as it had cost her seven grand and had earned her a jeweled piece-of-shit dress, she crept from the bedroom, where she’d been sorting clothes into “his” and “hers” piles, to the kitchen, where she intended to sneak a swig of gin which she’d carefully hidden when she’d been in charge of organizing the pots and pans, it being of course “woman’s work.”
As she headed over to the kitchen, while trying to avoid the prying eyes of her new lifelong mate, she began to contemplate what the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ” really stood for. Certainly Jesus didn’t have a middle name.
Having become trapped in her religious reverie, Katharine walked into the kitchen only to find she’d forgotten exactly why she’d come into this room in the first place. Yet she couldn’t go back to the bedroom—she’d risk him seeing her, and then he’d want to talk about the damned table or check on how things were going “on her end,” and she’d have to smile.
“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. Luckily her newlywed husband remained safely in the living room, trying to make sure he had “all his ducks in a row,” which he yelled out as if offering an explanation as to why it was taking him so fucking long to remove the Styrofoam-encased pieces of the Hazelnut Haven coffee table from their box. Why he considered it at all appropriate to deliver this offensively loud newsfeed was beyond her comprehension.
Derailed by the scraping, grating Styrofoam, she abandoned her forgotten mission in the kitchen and headed straight to the garage, where she’d hidden some cheap vodka she’d purchased at a gas station on the twenty-one hour drive to this new house in this new subdivision—Green Valley Acres, what a joke! There were only five completed houses in the whole damned lot, and the rest of it consisted of crumbling cement, mounds of dirt, and unfinished foundations, beams and boards hanging precariously over the ominous desolation from which they’d emerged.
She went to the shelves hanging on the far side of the garage, opened the box marked “Christmas Decorations – Katharine,” which he’d never care to deal with, and rummaged around for the vodka. Finding a little less than a quarter of the bottle left, she went to stand by the garage door so that she could gaze out of the already dirty windows as she drank.
The solitary streetlamp cast pale, flickering light upon the torn-up street. She couldn’t even fathom the damage she’d probably done to her car in the short drive up to their new house, but she supposed it didn’t matter, anyway. Mark wanted to buy a new car—one that was safer, with clear approval from Car and Driver magazine—something more appropriate than her beat up Kia for a child, or, if things went as planned, a couple of children. One boy and one girl.
And there it came. The sudden panic and terror. She felt as though she could feel the child already growing within her, scraping its fingernails within her stomach, ballooning up at a monstrous rate of growth. She needed to destroy something.
Searching through the garage, she couldn’t find much. Many of Mark’s tools had not yet been unloaded from the trunk, where he’d kept them “just in case they got into some sort of pickle” while making the drive.
Yet she did find one screwdriver, some screws, some nails, and a hammer, all of which he’d probably left out in case he needed them to build any of the furniture (he always planned ahead). Considering the options, she thought the hammer would be the most likely to cause the most damage.
She didn’t plan on slamming herself in the head or anything of the sort—she wasn’t crazy. She just needed something to center herself, to allow her to escape the incessant err-errring of scraping Styrofoam, that buzzing, flickering lamplight, that persistent, nagging persistent child begging for birth. So she placed her left hand upon the wooden workbench and positioned her thumb so that it lay vulnerable and ready.
Then, she lifted the hammer as one always raises a hammer, with deliberation and care, and brought it down straight upon her thumb. The pain was beautifully immediate. Her thumb seemed to ring from the pain, and all the other thoughts stopped swirling as the blood rushed to her extremity. “Fuck!” she cried.
“You okay, hon? What are you doing out there?” Mark yelled out from the house.
“Helping find tools for you. Just dropped one on my foot. No big deal,” she responded through clenched teeth.
“Honey, it says right here on the box: No additional tools required. Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting my ducks in a row.”
“Fucking ducks,” she mumbled to herself, shaking her hand vigorously to ease off the pain. What would she do if he noticed? She could always claim she had dropped another tool, this time on her hand. Chalk it up to her feminine clumsiness around tools.
Not that he thought of her that way—not in the least. He did not see the world in the way she sometimes painted him to see it. If anything, Mark had chosen her, married her, in large part for her tremendous reliability, her ability to hold her own, her lack of the hysteria his own mother possessed in reaping, seeping heapfuls.
“I’m just so glad to’ve found someone so stable and so supportive. You’re my rock,” he’d offered up in their self-written vows.
What would happen if he discovered that “his rock” was made of water (perhaps, more aptly, wine)? What would happen if he discovered that when she was struck—by emotion, by a flickering streetlamp or, for God’s sake, by the fucking incessant scraping of Styrofoam boards in her ears, she might explode into a heavenly mead of alcohol and inexplicable havoc? What would he do then?
Fearing the worst, Katharine looked down at her hand. This was always both the worst and best moment of the mutilation—the pain would flare up in raving flames as soon as her eyes turned to whatever part she’d just cut, smashed, ripped, or scratched. It always seemed to offer proof that perception was reality, for once she looked upon it, it became real.
But this time, as she set her eyes upon her left thumb, something strange happened—nothing. No pain. No throbbing redness, no immediate bruising as she’d seen when she’d smashed her hand into the wall of the solitary band practice room when she was in college. There was absolutely no discoloration. No swelling, no feeling of the blood rushing towards the pain. Nothing.
“What the fuck?” she thought. Hadn’t she done it? Hadn’t she actually hit herself with the hammer? Surely she hadn’t made it up, dreamed it. She hadn’t had that much to drink.
She drank some more, to ease the disquiet seeping steadily and irrevocably in. This was her form of meditation, of isolation, of calm. When the therapist had been called in to see her that one time freshmen year, he’d told her, mistakenly, to find something she loved, something that centered her, and do that thing every time she felt the world spinning. Every time she felt that over-stimulation–that’s what he would call her Styrofoam scraping, lamplight flickering, fetus scratching anxieties–become too overwhelming.
And so Katharine had found not one, but two things that brought her peace and quiet: getting pissed drunk to ease her mind, and, in the steady grace that always followed liquor filling her stomach, drowning all noise with the sudden and immediate desecration of some part of herself. She’d done it all, though never in obvious places. She wasn’t crazy. She knew the drill. Those bitches who cut wrists were cliché, attention-seeking. No, she’d sliced her elbows with a knife, cut her ankles up with razors, scraped her knees with a cheese grater.
And Mark. Good old Mark. How could he ever notice? He knew she worked out hard. He loved her fastidious, driven approach to exercise. And how could he find fault with her bruises, burns, and scrapes, when she was merely committed to running and riding her bike so that she could maintain her youthful health? She was so sturdy. And so unlike his mother, who had eaten her way into a nearly fatal obesity at such a young age.
Those scrapes, those scratches, those burns—those were her connections with a sort of dreamlike solitude that existed only in brief and fleeting moments. Those moments when her head would stop its screeching and its cage-rattling. When her body would stop its twitching and its pussy-aching.
Every time she felt the pain, her strength was regained. She was refreshed. And it wasn’t only in the moment. Every time she saw a slight red scab, or felt herself, while straddling Mark during sex, begin to burn the scrapes on her knees with the friction of the sheets beneath her, she felt the waves of calm come easing in, setting her adrift, far from the shore, with its moaning, landlocked demons, and into a world all her own. A world of blues and calms and setting suns as she looked out across glassy waters.
So what the fuck? Why wasn’t there any pain? Why wasn’t there any swelling? She’d hit it hard, she knew she had.
“Hon? Would you mind taking a look at this for me?” Mark yelled out from the living room to the garage. “I don’t see a letter label on this piece.”
Fucking idiot. Just look at the diagram. Glancing once again at her despairingly healthy pink thumb, Katharine put down the useless hammer and hid her vodka in the Christmas box again.
When Julie’s teeth were made of bone, I used to imagine her drunk with lust and working to undo my belt buckle in the lab supply closet. That was my favorite fantasy from our time at Ohio University. I’d let slip some casual interest while we worked on our latest immunosuppressant and she, frenzied with the knowledge of mutual attraction, would pounce. In the dream, she was somehow both the aggressor and the shy, sweet lab assistant with the crooked smile and fatal dimples. Beautiful human contradiction.
She still had the dimples. But, now her grin was a crude mosaic of neon aquarium gravel, twisted bottle caps, and bent pennies. I thought I even glimpsed the head of an old G.I. Joe action figure replacing one of her lower molars. It all shifted and changed from week to week, but she never missed a shift and she seemed mindful to avoid any bodily alterations that would interfere with the work. She always kept most of her fingers and her thumbs for pipetting and note taking. That alone set her apart from the other junkers I’ve met. That, and her involvement in their creation.
Of course, it’s not as if we set out to create sentient trash heaps or even fuse living and inanimate materials. We were doing basic research aimed at addressing a pressing need in medical science. Targeted immunosuppressants, coupled with a precise cocktail of growth stimulants, could have revolutionized the science of organ and tissue transplants. If we had succeeded, we would have saved thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousands. Waiting lists for transplants would have become an ugly antique, an ethical quagmire left in the wake of medical progress.
God, how often did I give that speech to potential donors in elevators and in the offices of venture capitalists? It was such a good speech, though I had yet to consider the possibility of making organs and tissue irrelevant. It might still have been a good speech if not for the damn news media. They hardly bothered considering the science they were trampling when they sent the cameras to provide exhaustive coverage of any delinquent with the wherewithal to misuse my technology. Filming a tree. Ignoring the forest.
A subtle deepening of our understanding of immune response? No interest. A man mods his body to the size of a pickup truck and murders half a city block? Gas-up the news van and cancel the evening weather report.
“Julie, would you grab my notes for me? There, next to the fume hood. Thank you.”
Those teeth. Hard not to think of cleaning between the couch cushions. But those dimples. Hard not to think of other things.
I suspected it was a bit of a tribute when she began, but I was somewhat shocked when Julie became a junker. It was, perhaps, the second biggest shock of my life. Ranked somewhere behind losing my lab at the university. But, then, labs can be found outside universities and dimples can eclipse a great many flaws. Technical skill and financial creativity can also eclipse flaws. In fact, they can turn a back alley basement into a world-class research facility. They can raise the luminaries of an age above the backward-looking nobodies that would hold them down. They can…
“What’s that, Julie? An appointment…? Ah, of course, it’s 10:00PM.”
A young man, nearly ten feet in height, carefully stooped through the entrance, moving with the awkward care of an infant giraffe. Almost all of his height was in his legs, both of which were a twisting lattice work of bone and metal, rebar and fencing materials woven with ligament and hooked with bone spurs.
“Well,” I said, retrieving his record from my file and clicking my pen, “how do you feel? Have you eaten? Have you produced any biological waste?”
Julie flashed him a reassuring smile.
His eyes surveyed the room independently of one another. I made a note on his chart.
“I don’t need to eat anymore. Same as last time. You know that,” he said without looking at me. His human hand wandered over to the starburst of steak knives and flatware that was his other hand, exploring the bent tines of a fork with careful tenderness. Then, his hands changed position and he began feeling his flesh hand with his inorganic hand. I wrote “expansion of sensation” on his chart.
“But, I think it’s happening slower,” he said. “My body…it doesn’t take to the rest of me as quickly anymore. I need more. Stronger. You’ve got stronger stuff, right?”
I looked the young man up and down.
“It looks to me like you’ve had plenty for now. Just keep track of how you feel and we’ll adjust your schedule to–”
It’s amazing how quickly a person with six foot long legs can cover distance.
He had caught up the lapels of my lab coat with his human hand and cocked back the jagged ball of his other fist before I even had time to be surprised. My fear synapses were just starting to fire when his metallic fist began to shoot forward, but those synapses were quickly drowned out in a cerebral thunderstorm of anger. The stiff weight of my new right arm was just coming into play when Julie acted.
In one fluid motion, she tugged her left pinky out of joint with her right hand, trailing a razor-thin filament of wire behind it. The wire flashed through the air quicker than human sight and the young man’s mostly inorganic arm clattered onto a lab table before cartwheeling to the floor.
He clamped his remaining hand over the exposed bone and wire of his missing arm and took two awkward steps backward like a startled heron. He nearly caved in his own skull on the doorframe, but somehow managed to flail his way up the narrow steps and out the door.
Julie turned as if to pursue him, but I put my right hand on her shoulder, the swirling metallic of my mercury skin blazing against the stark white of her lab coat. No one could call my new arm “junk.” It was an elegant application of technology.
Her shoulders tensed at the sudden contact and she whipped her face in my direction. I don’t think I had ever actually touched her before. Her eyes were wide. We were both breathing heavily with the excitement and adrenalin.
The silence felt suddenly meaningful, so I tossed words at it. “I think we need to seek out a better class of test subjects and perhaps…”
When she kissed me, it tasted of copper mixed with the syrupy sweetness of hot soda pop. My knees wobbled, but she caught me around the waist and pulled me in tight with a pneumatic hiss of a sigh. Wobbly knees could always be replaced, but lips… I made a mental note that lips were just right.
Jarod K Anderson’s work has previously appeared in The Colored Lens, as well as in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Electric Spec, Raygun Revival, Fourteen Hills, Stupefying Stories, and elsewhere.