Subway platforms always make me claustrophobic. Don’t know if it’s the being underground, the heat, or the people. Maybe all three.
Clint’s glaring at me. “Martin, stop it! You’re gonna pop a button.”
I look down, confused. My fingers have a mind of their own, twitching up and down my lapel. Damn starch. Years it’s been in my closet and this suit’s still stiff. Clint’s right, a lost button’s just one more thing to worry about. I push my hands into my pockets. Look up at Clint. He nods, approval. Patronizing.
“So Yolanda said you had to interview today, huh?” He knows this of course, just trying to make me talk. Get out of my own head. Probably not a bad idea.
I answer. “Just to keep up my disability.”
Again Clint nods, like he understands. He doesn’t. He’s one of the few of us not getting Federal Aid. Stop – Clint’s the only friend you’ve got. Quit being a dick. After all, the rules and regs of G.O.D. welfare aren’t his fault.
I need to talk. “I don’t know why these case workers insist on making us run this gauntlet of humiliation.” I let my eyes drift across the empty tracks, land on the graffitied-over station sign. I like the new name better – Blue Barrio. Better fit. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hired.”
“I did.” Clint’s voice is small. This is well-worn territory.
“Sort of.” I gesture toward his coveralls and I.D. badge. “But you’re a teacher, not a… Recycling Technician.” Glorified garbage man.
“And I’ll teach again.” As always Clint’s nothing but confident.
“You really believe they’ll open schools for us.” Not a question. Not any more. Clint’s a true believer–his face hardens. He believes, I don’t.
“Of course they will. Every day more kids are born with the Blues. They’re gonna need some schools, and soon. Special schools, just for us. Like the housing.” He nods across the tracks – toward the name of our state sanctioned ghetto. He’s right, of course. Got to keep the infected out of the general population. Schools, hospitals–a whole separate world is slowly materializing.
Trembling, Brettel touched the iron gate. It didn’t burn. She huffed. Foolish woman, why would it? She gripped a bar tightly and held onto the solidness of home.
Reaching through the bars, she raised the latch and pushed the gate open. Silently. Before it had made god-awful noises. Her breath caught. No. Oh, no. Holding the gate open, she studied the house before her.
She knew the sage bushes and willows that lined the path to the door. The swing hanging on the left side of the porch was an old friend. To the right stood the same rocking chairs that had stood there since time immemorial. Brettel smiled. This was home. This was where she belonged.
Someone had oiled the gate. In all these years, someone should have. It was a small change. Things would have. She had. But this was still home. Still where she belonged.
She hurried up the path, took a deep breath, and knocked. She’d been gone too long to just walk in.
An adolescent girl yanked the door open a few heartbeats later. She looked Brettel up and down, raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”
Who–? Brettel frowned and shook her head. It didn’t matter. “Is this still the carpenter’s residence?”
“He takes orders at his shop.” The girl pointed to adjacent building.
Brettel sighed with relief. “Is his wife home?”
The girl turned away and hollered, “Mom! Someone here for you.”
Leaving the door hanging open, she disappeared into the house.
Brettel heard footsteps and braced herself. An older woman, auburn hair streaked with grey, came around the corner and walked to the door. “Can I–?” Her brow furrowed momentarily. Her jaw dropped open. She whispered, “Brettel?”
Brettel bit her lip. “Mom?”
“Oh sweet lords! Brettel!” Her mother threw her arms around Brettel and pulled her into the house in a bone-crushing hug. Through eyes swimming with tears, Brettel saw the adolescent girl creep up to the parlor door. Brettel pulled back a little. Her mother let go and saw the direction of Brettel’s gaze.
“Delial, run to your father’s workshop. Tell him Brettel’s returned!”
The girl raised her eyebrows and disappeared back around the corner.
Brettel’s eyebrows shot up. That sulky almost grown girl was little Delial? Her sister who’d been in pigtails when Brettel left?
Their mother’s eyes raked across Brettel’s face. “Are you home? Are you home to stay?”
“If you’ll allow me–”
“Of course, of course.” Her gaze dropped lower and the frown returned between her eyes as she took in the well-cut dress of expensive linen and the finely tooled leather bag hanging at Brettel’s hip.
“Are you married?” she asked.
Brettel shook her head. Her mother paled and briefly closed her eyes. “You’ve become as a courtesan.”
Her mother waved a hand at her clothes.
“I’ll tell you both when Dad gets here, but I promise I’ve never sold my body for money. I had a job. My employer wished us to dress well and provided the clothes. The bag was a parting gift.”
Her mother still looked worried, but she closed the door and escorted Brettel to the kitchen. Her father burst in mere seconds later. “Brettel!”
His hug knocked breath from her lungs. As soon as he let her go, a young man pulled her into his arms. Brettel froze for a second and pulled away. He grinned. Oh, wow, how could she have not recognized him no matter how old her little brother had grown. “Garnan!”
Delial had returned as well, but she hung back. Arms crossed, she leaned against the wall.
“Where have you been all this time?” Garnan demanded.
Brettel looked at her parents. “You said if I wasn’t going to help out in Dad’s shop that I’d have to find work.”
Her parents exchanged a look full of pain and recrimination.
Brettel smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. I know I was an utter brat over the idea. For years I’ve wished I could do them over, and that wasn’t how you remembered me.”
“Ah, you were young,” her father said. He clasped her hand. “Only sixteen.”
“Sixteen is old enough to know when you’re acting like a brat.”
Delial frowned. So did Brettel. Delial couldn’t be that old yet.
“Anyway, I knew work was inevitable so I left that morning to attend the hiring fair.”
Her parents exchanged a look.
“Releigh had offered you work in her bakery,” her mother said.
“I remember, but I hated the idea. So I went to the hiring fair instead. There was a woman there, dressed much as I am today, looking for people to work at a huge estate. She said very little of the estate, only enough to give clue to its size and that it was on one of the islands, not here in Dwankey. When she offered me a seven-year position as an upstairs maid, I couldn’t say no. It sounded so elegant!
“A young man from a farmstead well north of us wanted work in the gardens, and a girl from the fishing huts took a position in the estate’s kitchens. We all followed the woman to the docks, where a beautiful white ship awaited us. It wasn’t any larger than the fishing vessels, but so dainty and well-kept.” Brettel shook her head.
“The woman ushered us aboard, but didn’t get on herself. She had served her time and finished her final task in hiring us and now could go home. She’d introduced herself at the fair as Trudy, now she told us she was related to the Millers.”
“Trudy Miller!” her mother shrieked. Her parents exchanged a stunned look. Garnan’s jaw dropped. Delial stepped away from the wall, her arms falling to her side and eyes wide.
“That woman claims she spent the seven–” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “Seven years she was gone on the White Isle.”
Brettel nodded. “That’s where the white ship took us. We had to restrain the fishmonger’s girl from jumping over as we drew near and it became obvious the White Isle was our destination.”
“I remember,” Garnan said dreamily. “I remember the Isle was visible that day. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time that morning watching the glitter of the sun on the white towers, discussing what it might really be like. Did you see the Fae? Did you see magic?”
Brettel shuddered. “Yes to both. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do with either. I was just an upstairs maid. I made their beds and cleaned their rooms and avoided them as best I could. My life wasn’t much different than a maid at any grand estate, I have to believe.”
“But what of the Fae? Who is the lord there? What is he like?” Delial took a seat at the table. Her mouth hung open.
“He–His name–” The name hovered on the tip of her tongue, but dissolved before she could form it. His image stayed behind her eyes. Tawny hair, chilly gold eyes. The image blurred. Brettel shook her head. “I’m sorry. They said it would all fade the further we got from the White Isle. I don’t seem to remember much of them. ”
“You were there for seven years. You must remember!”
Brettel’s brow furrowed. “I remember cleaning. I remember my friends among the human staff. The boy who came from the farm fell in love with one of them. He chose to stay on permanently.”
“One of the Fae?” Delial’s eyes were huge.
“That’s so romantic!” Delial squealed. “What was she like? Is she beautiful beyond words? Will they marry?”
Startled, Brettel laughed. “No, I don’t think they marry. She was–she was beautiful. All raven blue locks and deep…dark eyes.” The image dissipated as Brettel tried to describe her. She shook her head. “I–I do recall she was beautiful.
“I served the seven years of my contract and came home. They did pay me well. I have money for the household.” Brettel started to dig through her bag.
Her father caught her arm and said, “Are you telling us that Trudy Miller knew exactly where you were all this time? She let our hearts break with worry for seven years and never did us the kindness of passing on your location?”
Brettel blushed. “She probably didn’t know whose child I was.”
“We asked all over town for months and months!” her mother exclaimed. “Had anyone seen you? Did anyone remember you leaving Dwankey on any of the carts from the fair? A couple of people have always insisted they saw you at the fair, but since no one could say and we never heard from you, we feared the worst.”
“I’m sorry. If I’d had any way of getting word to you, I would have. I didn’t understand when I accepted the contract where I was going. Not until we were halfway across the bay to the White Isle and even then I didn’t believe we were really going to the White Isle until we actually docked there. No one’s ever reached it before. How was I to know we’d stepped onto a Fae boat with Fae sailors?”
“But she knew,” her father said. “That bitch knew all along how distraught we were and that you were safe and–I’m going to kill her.”
“Dad, no.” Brettel shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment. She didn’t want to say this, but knew she must. “It was her final duty to find new servants. Few choose to stay on beyond their seven years. The estate is immense. You would not believe from the glimpses we see from shore, how truly big the island and the estate is. They need servants.”
“What are you saying?” her mother asked.
“It is the final duty for departing servants. To find replacements.”
“Today was the hiring fair,” Garnan said. “Sol and Nerles were planning to look for better work.”
“Brettel?” Her father frowned. “Did you go first to the fair this morning?”
Brettel nodded. “I had that duty, yes.”
“Who? Who did you send off to them?” her father demanded. Brettel shook her head.
“No, you can’t do this, Brettel,” her mother said. “You must tell their families. You cannot allow another family to go through the grief we’ve suffered. Who did you send to them?”
“I can’t remember.”
Even at a distance in the hazy daylight, Sylvana could see Captain Ruggero Barsetti frowning at her as she walked down the dock carrying her diving suit. It was easy to read his thoughts: Her belly was growing, and it wasn’t seemly for her to be working so hard.
“What are you doing here, little one?” he said gruffly. It wasn’t his usual custom to be tender.
“I’m going out to Gate 38. Giorgio reported that something was causing it to snag. He could see it on his sonar on the big boat, but he didn’t have a diver. If it turns out to be a building, we are going to have our work cut out for us. Another big incursion is coming.”
“I appreciate your dedication, but I am aware of the gate problem,” the Captain retorted. “We are working on it. You should just go on home and take it easy until the baby arrives.”
Sylvana looked down at her calloused hands. “You know I can’t do that, cugino,” she said to her older cousin. “If I quit my job, I’ll never get back on. I’ll soon have another mouth to feed now, you know.”
“You’re a member of the clan. We’ll take care of you,” Ruggero said. He added, “Have you thought of joining the farming initiative after the baby comes?”
“And what will we use for fresh acqua? The only measurable rainfall is out over the sea. No, I don’t think the farming is going to happen soon.”
The Amborgettis were building freshwater collection platforms several miles offshore, but it was a risky venture in her view. The storms could be ferocious, and it was still too dangerous to subsist out on the exposed ocean. She’d stick with diving salvage from old buildings.
Sylvana felt a little guilty about playing the baby card, but she was the chief diver for the Barsetti clan. Maybe someday she could take it easy if the new farming project got off the ground. Or on the ground. There would be plenty of easy work then dusting off solar panels, to funnel back energy and provide additional light for the crops. But for now she had to keep her independence with Franco gone.
Sylvana and her relatives lived, barely, in one of the few coastal cities on Earth to survive the Gemini, the twin extinctions. The first disaster was widespread starvation initiated by runaway global warming. People moved from drought-stricken areas to the continental shores, only to fall victim to flooding and tsunamis. Then, as if humanity were not facing trials enough, an untracked extra-solar system ice ball struck Mexico in nearly the same spot as an asteroid had 66 million years ago. Any species unable to live on sludge, worms, and detritus had a difficult time in the aftermath.
Fortunately, humans are omnivores, and Sylvana’s scavenger ancestors had been fairly clever about turning dead plant and animal material into foodstuffs for people. Also luckily, there were a lot fewer people who needed to be fed. Those living in what remained of southern Europe clustered around Tristezza, or Trieste, as the Italians used to call it half a millennium ago. Now the name simply meant “sadness.”
Since the Gemini, Tristezza had watched its sister city across the Adriatic slowly succumb to the rising sea levels. Venezia had battled encroaching waters from the surrounding blue Adriatic Sea for centuries, and spent multiple fortunes hiring Dutch engineers to remove river silt and hold back the tides that threatened to overwhelm its lagoons. Venezia’s MOSE, with its series of gigantic steel sluice gates anchored below the surface, was a wonder of the world. When high tides threatened, the gates would float to the surface to protect the city. But after the Gemini, Venezia’s population dwindled, and, sensing a bargain, Tristezza negotiated to buy, dismantle, and move Venice’s gates to its own waterfront. Then the ocean erased any other signs of the great city.
Sylvana’s clan all worked to preserve the coastline and maintain the gates of Tristezza. Another clan, the Amborgettis, was responsible for running the pumps that constantly filtered the Adriatic waters for food and potable acqua. Although the climate had cooled considerably, the Adriatic Sea’s low salinity and moderate temperatures provided a climatic refuge for the remaining human population.
Sylvana’s scientist husband, Franco, had spent most of his life aboard sailing ships that Tristezza sent out each year, traveling around the boot of Italy and up the Ligurian Sea, looking for pockets of surviving species that might be suitable for refilling ecological niches or providing sustenance for humans. Franco had died five months earlier when his ship Santo Antonio tragically sank on the rugged Cinque Terre coast. Everyone thought it must have been in one of the aftershocks that continued to radiate across the ocean bed. Icelandic volcanoes regularly spewed ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling and darkening the hemisphere.
The argument over for the moment, Sylvana donned her suit, while the captain waved to Giorgio to bring the rowboat closer to the dock. The Barsettis owned 16 boats of varying sizes, all created from digital models and constructed of liquid plastic.
Giorgio rowed with one of the plastic oars and nosed the boat up, holding it steady so that Sylvana could step in.
Sylvana flashed a smile and clambered aboard. She sat near the prow to monitor the echo locator, perching her helmet in her lap. To save fuel, Giorgio made the two-mile row out to the gates. Sylvana silently counted his strokes to estimate when they were close to the 38th sluice. The sea was a touch choppy today, making it a bumpy ride.
As the water slapped against the sides of the boat, she unsnapped a long telescoping pole from the interior wall and unfolded it over the water. Giorgio rowed in a tightening circle, while Sylvana poked into the murky water. The tide was not yet officially an incursion, so it should be low enough that she could find the gate without having to try to inflate it with compressed air.
Ah, luck was with her. Her pole hit something solid.
“Let’s stop here, Giorgio,” she said. Her red-bearded oarsman tossed over a heavy anchor, which would slow them down, although the rope wasn’t always long enough to reach the sea bottom. The rope would be her lifeline if she was unable to see the surface, which was most of the time.
Sylvana tucked in her long braid, as Giorgio helped her don the helmet and twist the air hose onto the valve. She slipped into the chilly water and began descending the anchor rope. As the surface closed over her, she could see only a bit of pale sun overhead. It was a short journey to the obstruction they had located. She could barely make it out with her torch, but it appeared to be part of an old wooden dock from the original Trieste marina that had slipped under water about 80 years ago. It should have floated out to sea, but part of it was stuck about 50 feet below the surface, maybe on one of the gate pylons. Chunks of plastic and other trash were accumulating on the obstruction. She pried a piece loose and tucked it into her catch bag.
She tugged on one of the timbers, but it didn’t budge. She would have to surface and get more rope. And more help. Maybe with two or three boats they could dislodge it and pull it inland. Wood was a valuable commodity, even if waterlogged.
Sylvana’s efforts to move the dock kicked up a dark green slow-motion cloud, probably dead algae that would have been useful as food, except that now she couldn’t see anything. She swam around for a while without finding the boat. She reminded herself not to panic and hyperventilate. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard Giorgio pounding on the rowboat hull. She swam in what she hoped was the right direction and with relief grabbed the anchor rope.
Giorgio pulled her in, and said, “What took so long? What did you find?”
Exhausted, Sylvana began shedding her suit. She noticed that Giorgio stared a little, and was a little embarrassed that he probably was looking at her expanding stomach. She started to tell him about the submerged find, but suddenly she felt queasy, and spots swam before her eyes. She sank toward unconsciousness, and the last thing she remembered was Giorgio shouting soundlessly as he struggled to pull up the anchor.
We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.
He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.
Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.
From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.
I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.
And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.
“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.
“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”
“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”
“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”
“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”
The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”
“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”
The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”
“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”
“I do. It’s just all I have really.”
”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.
“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”
“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”
“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”
“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”
Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”
The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.
I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.
“This bet still going?” I asked.
“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”
“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.
The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.
“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.
With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.
The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.
That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.
When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.
Three lasers streamed into the blackness ahead. Captain Erin Waite aimed her executer and led her squad deeper into the cave. They were more than a mile in. Her unit moved in formation behind her surrounding a scientist, Sandra Moore, and a waste-of-space journalist, Thyme Bransford.
“It’s coming,” Thyme whispered, her voice trembling.
“Where?” Erin kept moving, scanning the narrowing rock walls with the executer tight to her shoulder.
Thyme didn’t respond.
The semi-automatic weapon, a rare commodity, fired tiny proton explosives encased in a bullet that reduced objects to dust while leaving the surrounding matter untouched. Ford Reams, the Southerner to Erin’s right, claimed he blasted a Russian terra-tank the size of a house to ashes back when the Army could afford to supply executers to a small portion of infantry. The bullet waiting to be fired held the laser. A dimmer red light fanned out from the barrel, penetrating the dark, showing a narrow, empty cave. Erin was losing patience with this girl.
“Thyme, answer me.”
“I don’t know. But it’s coming!” she screeched.
“What is that condiment saying?” Brody Halverson left his position at the rear to approach Erin. He wasn’t the type to coddle anyone.
Probably why Erin loved him. And why she would never tell him. He would’ve broken her heart after one night together. She met him years ago, but only worked directly with him once before. “Anything?”
“Nothing. I’ll keep walking backward to make sure.” He returned to his position.
“Tom?” Erin glanced over her left shoulder at Tom Eagle, her second-in-command.
“Clear,” he replied.
She groaned, tempted to order a spit-shine to clean the goggles. “Only report a sighting if you actually see something, got it?”
The group, including Thyme, echoed understanding.
They pressed on, and Erin determined to ignore Thyme. If she cracked up, Erin could send her back to base.
“Here I thought alien-huntin’ bored a woman like you, Thyme,” Ford said. “Back in the canyon, we’re saddlin’ up and you yawn like this is some cake walk.”
She said nothing.
Ford sniggered. “Not so confident now, huh, twig?”
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.