Another beautiful morning began on Bannanatattatantsia. The red sun of morning burst like a fireball over the horizon, exploding in pink and orange rays across the sky. But Calligraphy Shopworn barely noticed. She was too busy cleaning the blood and gore from her sheets. A new iron spire had forced its way out of her back during the night, taking its place among the others along her spine.
She gathered the bloody sheets. Later she could get some more from Mrs. TVscreen. Calli lumped her remaining bedding into the pile of rags she called her bed. It wasn’t one, really. No real bed could accommodate the weight and bulk of her body’s changing form. The pile just occupied a warm corner of her dome by an open window. Through it, she had a clear view of the nearly unspoiled beauty of this lonely pebble of a planet. Anything to distract her from her unending agony. Someone knocked at her door.
“Come in,” she said.
Vash Graylighting entered. Calli couldn’t help smiling as she went back to her cleaning. Vash came to see her almost every morning, another distraction from the pain. He towered over her, but everyone seemed tall from Calli’s low point of view on her hover cart. She liked to think of Vash as being especially tall, though. He had cold eyes, but a warm smile; and among the altered men and women of this planet, he appeared almost normal, not as disfigured as she.
“Morning, Calli, I–” he began, but a mumbling beneath his clothes interrupted him. He slapped his arms and sides, and the mumbling stopped. “I wondered if you had some more rags I could use.” He leaned against the corrugated metal wall in that casual way Calli liked.
She smiled and knew he could get rags the same way she could. He simply made an excuse to see her. “You can have some of these. They have blood on them, though.”
“I don’t need them to be clean.” He brushed his hand over his baggy coat.
Calli pressed a few buttons on the control unit by her arm, and the hover cart that held her elephantine bulk rose a few feet with the subtlest of hums. Operating the hover cart tired her because she only had the use of one arm, the other having weeks before been converted into a sort of archway, or buttress; she didn’t know what to call that part of the cathedral growing from her back. She said to Vash, “I thought about ordering a few things from Mrs. TVscreen. Would you like to come?”
“Sure.” Vash looked her over.
If more of her skin had been visible, Calli would have blushed. She could feel heat rush over her in waves.
“You look different. Have you done something to the rose window?”
Her hand instinctively covered her chest and the violet glass there. “No, the spire of another tower came through last night. I was cleaning the mess before you arrived.”
“Ah, you know, Calli, you’re really turning into a beautiful cathedral.”
“Thanks,” she said. She knew he meant well.
Calli wasn’t vain just conscious of all she’d lost. She had been a beautiful young woman, and now she was disfigured. Who was she fooling? She had been transfigured. When Vash looked at her, how could he see what remained of her beneath the Gothic cathedral growing out of her back? She thought of the last time she had been beautiful. Two years seemed so long ago.
After a hasty voyage aboard the first available Cutter ship to leave her home planet, Calli had found herself floating in a space buoy waiting for a ride to convey her to her new home.
The prearranged ride had appeared in the form of a starhorse, the usual ferry to Bannanatattatantsia. She had been drawn through the airlock door as it opened into the landing bay. Her legs quivered with the feel of artificial gravity again. Sleepy muscles struggled to prop her body upright. She would never enter one of those coffin-like space buoys again.
An armored hand reached down for hers. She took it, and it helped her the rest of the way. Clad completely in armor, the man the hand belonged to looked at her from a helmet like a giant eye. Its dark visor suggested depth, but revealed nothing of the wearer within.
“Greetings, mam’zelle!” Though harsh and grating through the helmet’s speaker, the tone sounded amiable enough. “I am your humble chevalier on your journey to Bannanatattatantsia.”
“Cavalier will do.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and helped her stumble along as he walked.
“Oh, I’m Calli.”
“Enchante. And I am Onri. Let us hasten to ze bridge, and we can be on our way.”
A ship the size of a starhorse held little beyond its cochlear drive, the bay where Calli met Onri, and the bridge, which she suspected doubled as Onri’s living area once she saw it. Unidentifiable musical instruments cluttered disused panel space. Overhead compartments bulged with real paper books, none written in a language she could read.
“Normally, I do not convey such a lovely young lady. Had I known, I would have at least cleared off a seat for you.” He gently lifted what looked like a wind-up banjo and stowed it in a closet in the rear of the control room. “Your flight on ze Cutter ship before she drop off your buoy went well, anh?”
“No, I’ve never traveled by Cutter before. I didn’t know it was possible to slice space like that.” She didn’t add that it had terrified her to see space with a scar that stretched like a white smile across constellations. “I saw one of the Captains of the Cut.”
“Anh,” he said, sitting down. “An ill omen. But still, I am hopeful for you. You are a Melanophile, no? I can tell by your black cloaks and frills. Why are you come to Bannanatattatantsia?”
“Personal reasons,” said Calli, as she sat.
“Anh, everyone has ze personal reasons. If not for personal reasons, there’d be no need for Bannanatattatantsia!” Onri laughed, slapping his armored thighs.
He ran his hands over controls that started the ship. Calli heard the muffled rumbling of the cochlear drive from aft.
Onri turned to his passenger. “Why you wear that necklace? I thought Melanophiles could not wear colors.”
Calli hid the icon around her neck beneath her cloaks, but did not answer.
“Anh, more personals. I’ll not pry. What planet you from, lovely lady?”
That was the second time he had called her lovely. She didn’t mind, though. It was hard to take flirting seriously from a man who looked like a machine. “Letmi-B,” she said.
“Ze Melanophile homeworld? Don’t know how you even got zat icon. Anh, prying. I will talk of something more pleasant, me!” He bowed, and seemed proud in his full-body, brassy-colored armor. “I am from ‘Dent de Leon’.”
“You’re from a planet called ‘Dandelion’?”
“‘Dent de Leon’–gods forgive you. It means ‘Tooth of ze lion’.”
“What’s a lion?” she asked.
“Er, it is a type of badger.”
Calli didn’t know what a “bazhair” was either, but decided not to ask.
“Anh, I and my family before me have always been chevaliers, sailing ze blackest sea of all in our starhorses.” He held his hands out to her. “I do not know what I would do if I could not fly with these. It is a pity I will never again touch ze controls with my bare hands.”
She looked at the deeply pitted, brassy armor he wore, layered in thick plates.
“Why do you wear that armor, Onri?”
“Is formidable, no?” He showed it off to her, making it glint in the yellow light of the ship. “I must wear it to bear you recruits from space buoy to ze surface of ze planet. It prevents ze inhuman yesnobites there from settling in.”
Calli remembered the recruiter discussing the yesnobites of Bannanatattatantsia that she was going to fight, but she had not paid attention. She had cared only about being away from her home planet.
She pretended to understand Onri.
Lights flashed on his panels, and he made a rapid series of adjustments. “Your first look at your new home. You will want to see, anh?” The starhorse plunged into the atmosphere, descending through the cloud line.
Calli could see the pink sky crowning ridges of mountains and valleys lining the horizon. The stained desert sand, and the rocks as well, blended from color to color, like an oil slick on water. Ridges, canyons, and pinhead buttes scattered across the terrain. As the ship settled to land near a small human colony, Calli could see low-lying plants and shrubs meshed together at the surface.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“And deadly, like the sea,” added Onri.
After landing, he led Calli to the exit and opened the bay doors. Sunlight shimmered bronze on his armor.
Calli began to feel a bubbling beneath her skin and then a prickly feeling in her spine, which started to grow into a fire.
“What’s happening?” She grabbed Onri’s arm.
He turned toward her. “Mon dieu, you do not know? It is ze yesnobites settling in.” He caught her as she collapsed and laid her on teal sand beside the ship. “I thought you know about ze yesnobites.”
He grasped her hand as her body shook. “They are tiny, evil machines. They get inside and change you–rewrite your body based on what they find in your mind.” Had he not been wearing armor, Calli’s grip would have crushed his hand. “But if you bear ze pain, take it all and laugh at them, you will survive. All who survive and beat their yesnobites destroy a small fraction of those terrible machines. Only surrender means death. This is the battle that all you warriors fight during your tour of duty here on this planet.” He brushed her sweat-soaked black hair from her face. “I have faith in you, mon amie. You are an Amazon in ze wilderness of space.”
Calli blacked out.
When she awoke, Onri still sat near her on the landing gantry. He played a key-and-bellows-type instrument, droning low and lonely. He stopped.
They both rose and wordlessly went their separate ways. He into his ship and she to the colony.
Vash accompanied Calli through the settlement. He admired the way she glided her hover cart through the crowds, never bumping anyone or knocking people down. He knew it must be difficult with only one arm and no legs free.
Calli must have misinterpreted his look because she covered the rose window in her chest with her cloak.
Vash was about to say something when he heard the mechanized approach of the colonel behind them. He was the only one in the colony who moved on treads. Vash and Calli both turned to meet him.
Bannanatattatantsia had originally been a military mining acquisition which failed after the invasion of the yesnobites. Colonel Go-Lightly was a holdover from the earlier military presence. The yesnobites had changed him quite a bit, but he didn’t seem to mind.
Treads replaced his lower body, and one arm had been converted to a heavy-grade O-cannon; but since the cannon made civilians nervous, he’d taken to keeping one of the planet’s nearly-parrots in the barrel. He called it “Blawk”. Featherless and flightless, it lounged inside, pecking at its toes with its enormous beak. Despite the colonel’s bluster, he tended to care for the colonists, almost as much as he did for Blawk.
“Vash, Calli, gettin’ around are yeh?”
“Yes, colonel,” said Calli. “We’re on our way to see Mrs. TVscreen.”
A smile bloomed in the scarred chaos of the colonel’s face. “Really?” He maneuvered closer to Vash. “Hey, son, that reminds me. Have you had any more luck with those fake hands I asked you ta make?”
“The prosthetics?” answered Vash. “Yes, they’re not very good, though.”
“Hell’s bells, son, anything’s better than what that lady’s already got.”
The nearly-parrot leaned out of the O-cannon toward the colonel’s face. “Blawk!” it said. The colonel gave it a treat.
“What’s this about, Vash?” asked Calli.
“The colonel asked me to make hands for Mrs. TVscreen, because of her problem. They’re more like claws, though.” To the colonel he said, “I don’t think she’ll like them.”
“Aw, c’mon, Vash. I want to give her something. They don’t have to be perfect.”
“All right, colonel.” Vash edged away. “I’ll drop them by your dome when they’re finished.”
“Thanks, Son. Say ‘hello’ for me.” The colonel and Blawk rumbled off into the crowd.
Vash and Calli headed toward the open-air market. They passed the welded metal domes, gathered like overturned silver flowers. Beyond these lay the cliffs and buttes of Bannanatattatantsia, with the edge of town marking the end of the colony’s world. A sheer drop led into an impossibly deep valley.
Vash and Calli skirted this edge on their approach to the market. Racks and stalls covered with tarps lined the lanes. Vendors bartered with customers. All the people wore a variety of shapes. Yesnobites were cruel, and hosts bore the marks of their torture in infinite ways. Some, like Calli, suffered drastic transformations; whereas others, like Vash, wore subtler scars.
If any human-made place within the colony could be called pleasant, it was Mrs. TVscreen’s cloth shop. The varicolored swaths draping her modest stall rivaled the colors of the planet itself in beauty.
Mrs. TVscreen stood among her wares, folding fabric in a fast 1-2-3 rhythm. Her speed always amazed Vash, since Mrs. T did everything without hands. Mrs. TVscreen earned her name because her face, chest, and hands had all been replaced with television screens by her yesnobites. Once, a long time ago, before her husband had died, flocks of birds had dived and whirled in dervish-like abandon across each glassy tube. Now, the birds rested sedately on pixelated wires and fence posts, occasionally twitching a wing, nothing more.
–Vash, Calli! Glad to see you.– The words rolled past on her face screen when she looked up to see the two newcomers. She put down her work. Vash and Calli greeted her and asked how she’d been.
–Oh, you’re both dears. I’m fine.– But the birds in her chest screen showed otherwise. If anything, they seemed more sullen. –I’ve just been thinking about my husband from before, well, you know. I never liked having to scrub him, what with all the buckets, but I miss having someone around.–
Vash and Calli shared a quick glance.
“We ran into the colonel,” said Vash.
The birds on Mrs. TVscreen’s chest fluttered their wings. –That old warhorse? What did he want?–
“He and I are working out a little trade,” answered Vash.
Calli nearly said something, but Vash nudged her cart. “I think Calli needed something, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes. Mrs. T, I need more sheets. I ruined another set.”
–Why don’t I just get you some red ones, dear?–
After leaving Mrs. TVscreen, Vash and Calli continued touring the settlement. Then they made their way back to Calli’s dome.
Outside her door, Calli said, “That’s really sweet what you are doing for the colonel.”
Vash put his hands in his pockets, looking awkward. “You haven’t seen the hands yet.”
“I’m sure they’ll both be happy.” She moved into her dome. In the center of the main room was a small pile of scrap metal. “What…?”
“Ah, the colonel’s been here. This is what I traded the hands for.”
Calli looked confused.
“Raw materials,” explained Vash. “For your cathedral. I know how important it is for you that the yesnobites finish it.”
“You have no idea.”
Later that night, Calli flew. Rain fell on her naked body — the oily, dark rain of her home world, Letmi-B. Calli welcomed dreams like these on Bannanatattatantsia. She missed her legs.
Through the darkening skies of nearly night, she soared over the spiky, black towers of the Melanophiles. She recognized her home town of St. Mezzanine’s Rest below her. Air travel dominated most human colonies on other worlds, but the low visibility and high towers of Letmi-B made that impossible. Crowds of people filled the streets below her.
She spied through open windows on the beautiful, the ugly, the weak, and the damned. As much as she wanted, she found she couldn’t stop to watch any. The dream rushed her along.
Calli recognized this part of town. Only when the cathedral appeared through the pillars of rain did she realize her destination.
“No, not here,” she begged her dream.
How could she not know this cathedral, with its black spires and violet rose window? She saw it every day in every reflective surface on Bannanatattatantsia.
“Please, let me go!” But she continued inexorably forward, dragged faster toward the window.
As she approached its warm, violet light, she could see two figures behind the glass.
“I don’t want to see it happen!”
She felt the cold rain on her skin, tasted its bitterness. The shadows of the figures moved rapidly behind the window.
“Stop! No, no, NO!”
And she awoke, screaming to herself in her dome. Heart pounding, she propped herself up on her elbow to look out the window. Sunlight topped the cliffs and buttes.
“Oh, another beautiful morning,” she said and lay back down.
Vash finished cutting the last of the miniature gags from the sheet Calli had given him. The gags didn’t need to be perfect, or even clean; they just had to keep the voices quiet. As if on cue, the mumbling began again beneath his tent-like coat. A few quick slaps silenced the noise. He didn’t have time to apply the new gags. He had to go meet Calli. She had a postal phoenix.
Calli filled his mind as he prepared to leave his dome. She was so beautiful. He didn’t care that she was turning into a cathedral, or that she had to move around on a hover cart. She was the most incredible woman he’d ever met. And that made him think about his wife. He didn’t want to. Not anymore. But he couldn’t help it.
He put his wife out of his mind as best he could, patted down his wrinkly clothes, and left to meet Calli.
Vash loved watching postal phoenixes arrive. He thought about them on his way. They fascinated him the way they traveled so far through space only to deliver one message. He had only received two while on this planet, and those had been bad news. Maybe Calli’s would be different.
When she answered her door, Vash noticed she wore her icon to cover the violet window in her chest.
“You haven’t worn that in a while,” he said.
She looked tired. Her hair was ratty, and she’d barely covered herself. “Bad night. Sorry, Vash. I’m not in a social mood.”
“Ah, but the colonel just told me. You have a postal phoenix. Wanna go watch it crash? Violent destruction could cheer you up.” He smiled and mentally crossed his fingers.
“All right,” she said. “But understand that I’m not to have a good time under any circumstances.”
“I promise to be the worst company ever.” He helped her cover areas of her body she couldn’t easily reach, even with the crane and lever system he’d built for her, and they left.
The drop zone for the postal phoenixes lay outside the settlement to prevent accidental fires. Vash could see the pad in the distance.
“So,” he said, “who could this message be from?”
Calli sighed. “You’re fishing for facts about my life again, aren’t you?”
“Just making conversation. We have time before we get to the drop zone.”
She hovered along over red desert rocks and sand. “I didn’t like being a Melanophile. It’s even more constricting than outsiders realize. I needed to get away.”
“This planet isn’t a getaway, Calli. People come here to die when they’re too afraid to kill themselves.”
“Vash, please, I didn’t have a good night.”
They continued in silence for a while. The subtle herbal aroma of the desert flora surrounded them.
“Why do you always wear that hideous coat?” she asked. “We live in a desert.”
“Oh, no. You don’t want to talk, neither will I. Nothing’s free.” Besides, they were almost there.
A metal slab, larger in area than several domes, filled a clearing near the cliffs outside the settlement. Many concentric circles covered its surface. The colonel said they helped him to aim the phoenixes.
Colonel Go-lightly and Blawk approached Vash and Calli from the controls near the drop zone.
“Hello, sir,” said Vash. “Have you given the hands to Mrs. TVscreen yet?”
The colonel stammered. “Um, I, no, I’m not ready.” To Calli, he said, “I’ve got your phoenix in the upper atmosphere. I can drop it on the target zone whenever you’re ready.”
“I’m ready,” Calli said, though she didn’t look it. She drummed her fingers on the control stick of her hover cart, which rocked slowly in the air.
As the colonel trundled back to the controls, Vash heard Blawk squawking for food and the colonel’s colorful response.
Shortly, they heard a wailing from the sky as a silver dart screamed toward the bull’s eye. As it struck the pad, its explosion lit the sky brighter than a thousand fireworks on a moonless night.
Vash and Calli covered their eyes as the postal phoenix transformed the energy of its own immolation into power for the message it carried. Out of the sparks and flames burst a cascade of tiny slivers of light that resolved into the image of a man, towering above them. He wore black robes similar to the ones Vash knew Calli owned, but could no longer wear.
“Vash! It’s my uncle.” She looked up at Vash with terrified eyes. He rested a hand near one of her buttresses.
“Calligraphy.” Her uncle’s voice echoed across the desert, like the thunder of an approaching storm. “I know you wanted to hide, little one. But I remember playing ‘Suns, Moons, and Shadows’ with you when you were just a girl. I could always find you.”
Calli’s reached her hand to take Vash’s.
“Nothing I say could soften this for you, Calli dear, but your father is dead.”
Vash thought he heard her say, “Bastard,” but she spoke too quietly to be sure.
“I’ll be taking over your father’s role as high priest at the cathedral, and I hope to reopen it for the public very soon.”
“Good!” she interrupted. “Someone needs to find out what he did.” To the image, she yelled, “Look behind the window!”
The image continued, but Vash was too busy thinking about Calli’s outburst to listen very closely.
“…So remember, little one, even though your father and mother have both returned to the Sagradablack, your aunt and I will be here for you when your tour of duty on Bannanatattatantsia is over.”
Calli tightened her grip.
“I have some final words for you, dear, from the prophet, Mezzanine: ‘You will worship the dark, for it is from the darkness that all light first shines.’ I hope you find some comfort in those words, and I hope to find you once again after you finish hiding behind your suns, your moons, and your shadows.” His image froze, and then the slivers from the postal phoenix sputtered and drifted across the bull’s eye, like light ash in a breeze.
Calli was quiet for some time. She simply held Vash’s hand.
He had to ask. “Calli, why should he look behind the window? What window?”
Calli let go of his hand, turned her hover cart, and glided back to the settlement without saying another word.
Calli lay on the rag pile in her dome trying to sleep. Light from the planet’s twin moons shone through the window beside her. The shining orbs stared at her like two pale eyes, peeking over the horizon.
She heard a howling from somewhere in the dark night. She wished people would keep their torment to themselves. Then she thought that if more people let their suffering out, there’d be less suffering.
She thought of Vash. He kept trying to get her to talk about why she came to Bannanatattatantsia. She didn’t really want to, but she liked that someone tried. Wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Someone who cared enough to pester about things better left alone?
Calli needed to talk to Vash, even if the night was late. She didn’t bother to cover herself. It was dark and besides, if people saw her bare thigh, they probably wouldn’t recognize it for all the iron scroll work. Recently, however, Calli had been feeling self-conscious about the rose window in her chest. She felt more comfortable with it covered.
She grabbed her mother’s icon as she left her dome. Red and gold lettering and holy designs adorned a silver relief of the prophet, Mezzanine. This controversial item was all she had left of her mother: a colorful testament to the woman’s rebellion. As she put the icon on, she thought she noticed a shadow pass behind the glass of the rose window the icon covered, but it could have been a trick of the moonlight.
Her cart hovered smoothly over rough ground. On the way to Vash’s dome, she heard more screaming. It was a wild night. As she approached Vash’s, the screaming grew louder.
“Vash!” Calli accelerated her cart. When the screaming abruptly stopped, she powered her cart as fast as she could. She braked her cart, but still barreled through the front door.
Inside, a bar of moonlight from the doorway cut the darkness. Calli heard voices, female voices. Other women?
“Vash,” said one. “What was that?”
From somewhere in the room, Calli heard a groan.
“Vash, it’s me. Calli.” She fumbled along the wall for the light control.
Said a female voice, “Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend, Vash?”
Calli finally found the light, which brightened slowly.
Several pulpy, pale objects cluttered a table, surrounded by a dark fluid. A crumpled mass by the wall was probably Vash. When Calli could see better, she realized Vash had been cutting himself. Trails of blood led from him to the objects on the table.
The objects began to speak. “Come a little closer, dear. We want to look at our replacement.”
Calli didn’t know what to think, but she moved straight for Vash. “What are you doing?” she asked as she pulled up beside him.
“Calli,” he began to pull himself together. “You should go. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“You’re bleeding. I’m not leaving you.” Calli started searching Vash to find all the wounds.
“It’s all right,” said Vash. “The yesnobites have started healing me, even the faces are growing back.”
“Us,” said the pale shapes on the table.
Calli started to move toward them to get a better look. Vash grabbed one of her buttresses. “No, please, just go.”
“What’s the matter, Vash?” asked the shapes. “Don’t want your girlfriend to see your wife this way?”
Faces. Tiny faces drenched in blood covered the table. A few still had gags made from torn sheets stuffed in their mouths.
“Your wife?” Calli felt ill and backed her cart away.
“Don’t go yet,” said the faces. “You’ll want to hear how your boyfriend shot us in the face with his batterbeam pistol. We lost our head before we hit the floor!”
“Shut up, shut up!” screamed Vash. “I hate you all!” He hurled himself at the table and began pummeling each of the shapes into bloody silence.
Calli couldn’t think. Terrified, she slapped her arm against her cart’s control arm. She smacked against walls and the doorjamb, knocking off some of the more brittle parts of her cathedral.
Only after she was out of the dome did she realize she had been holding her breath. She released it as she sped off into the night, the distance drowning Vash’s screams.
Vash killed his wife! He shot her! Calli rocketed between darkened domes, narrowly missing many. She couldn’t reconcile this with what she knew of Vash. Could she really trust the severed heads to tell the truth?
Calli thought of her father, her mother, the icon; and she was at the cathedral with them again.
Melanophiles wore black, her father had said.
“But the icon is of the prophet,” her mother countered. “How can something sacred be evil?”
Calli’s father fumed, his black robes and cowl covering his powerful frame. He grabbed the Black Scroll from atop the cathedral’s altar. “‘You will worship the dark’,” he quoted, “Not colors, Chiaro.” He shoved the scroll in her face. “Do these words mean nothing to you? Only from black can all light and color emerge.”
Calli’s mother, Chiaro, pushed the scroll away. “What about the window?” She pointed at the upper alcove that housed the violet rose window.
Calli’s father hit Chiaro with the scroll. She fell to the floor, her mouth bleeding.
Calli yelped, as if she had been the one struck.
Her father turned to her, noticing her for the first time. He stepped toward her while rolling up his sleeves.
Calli heard a knock at the door, startling her from the memory of her parents. Sunlight crept through her dome’s windows. Was it morning already? Calli hovered over to the door.
Mrs. TVscreen stood in the doorway holding Calli’s new sheets. –Here you are, dear, and they’re red. That’ll hide your little, you know.–
Calli took the sheets. “Oh, my! Hands!” At the end of Mrs. TVscreen’s stumpy arms hung the prosthetics Vash had made. Calling them hands was generous. They were clumsy-looking, crow-like claws, good only for gross manipulation. But they must be more useful than the television tubes at the ends of her arms. “They’re beautiful, Mrs. T.”
–Thank you, dear. The colonel gave them to me. I always thought he was a thundering blowhard, but now,– she looked the appendages over, –Well, these were very sweet.–
Calli thought the colonel’s gift might have been more than sweet. Some of the birds in Mrs. TVscreen’s chest hopped on their wire and flapped their wings.
Vash made those hands. He had also made her hover cart and some of the other devices around her dome that she used when she needed more than one arm.
There had to be more to Vash’s shooting his wife. As kind as he was, he couldn’t be capable of cruelty.
She thought of her father and what he had done. No, he had never been kind.
“Would you excuse me, Mrs. T? I have to go talk to Vash.”
–Certainly, dear. Say hello. He’s such a nice boy.–
“What the Hell’s your problem springing something like that on me?” Calli hit Vash a few times with her arm and then bumped her cart against his shins, just enough to bruise. “How could you keep the murder of your wife from me?”
Vash retreated further into his dome until forced by Calli into a chair. Gone were his bulky clothes. Calli could see all the faces covering his arms and chest, the miniature gags stuffing their mouths. “You’ve kept things from me,” said Vash, rubbing his legs.
“I didn’t vaporize my wife’s head! Is that what happened? Were those things right?”
Vash covered his face with his hands and paused a moment. He slowly slid his hands away. “Yes.”
Calli started to back out of his dome.
“Wait. Now that you know about this, you need to hear everything.”
Calli stopped. As much as Vash disgusted her, she wanted to hear his story. “You have five minutes to tell me the saddest tale I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Vash sighed. “I was a technician assigned to help set up a colony on the planet Red Sun Morning. Normally, techs and colonists don’t get along, but when my wife and I met, well, it started out as love. We had a son together, Nash.” Vash shifted in his chair. “However, I didn’t know my wife, and the rest of the colonists, were religious fanatics.
“Their religion, like their native home world, revolved around their sun. Shortly after their colony formed, their native sun went nova. To them, this destruction meant the end of them as a people. They prepared to kill themselves.”
Vash stopped talking a moment, and then, “I know I’m eating into my five minutes, but I’ve never talked to anyone about this.”
“Take your time. I want to hear how this ends.”
“I don’t know how the story ends,” he continued. “Not yet. But I’ll tell you how I came to be here. I had been working in the wilderness of Red Sun Morning, which is why I was armed, when I returned to an empty colony.
“Suspecting something, I ran for my family’s silo. I can’t even remember running up the winding stairs to the living area. My next memory is of my wife standing before me, with our young son in her arms and the syringe buried in his neck. I could see the inky, jet-black poison within that we used to kill sick cattle. I had my batterbeam pistol out and aimed at her before I knew I’d drawn it.
“She tried to explain, buy some time. I didn’t think she’d press the plunger until she did.”
“Let me finish. It’s time I did. Yes, I shot her, emptied a whole magazine of gougers at her head. I managed to grab Nash before my wife’s body hit the ground.
“My poisoned son still lived, but I had to find a way to get him off a dead planet. I used our colony’s starhorse to get him to the nearest hospitaller’s constellation. He’s there now, time-snapped until I can afford to have his body regrown. I planned to take the money I earned enlisting on Bannanatattatantsia to pay for the operation.”
Calli never felt so vile. How could she have doubted her friend? “I’m sorry, Vash. I didn’t know. I couldn’t help thinking the worst.”
“It’s all right. I–” Vash sucked in a breath and gripped the steel arms of his chair until his knuckles whitened.
“What’s wrong?” Calli asked.
Vash couldn’t speak. His face twisted into a painful grimace. All at once, the faces began to moan through their gags. “What’s happening?” Vash sputtered. The faces let out muted cries and then stopped. One by one, they fell to the floor, leaving reddened ovoid welts across Vash.
A subdued luminosity shone beneath Vash’s skin. It grew brighter in the center of his chest and paler as it reached his extremities. From his hands and feet, Calli could see a fine dust fall and drift away.
“Vash, did you just defeat your yesnobites?”
Vash rose, groaning, from his chair. “I don’t know. I’ve never known anyone to beat their yesnobites since I’ve been here. Onri would know. Will you come with me?”
Calli laid her hand on her chest. “You go. I’ll be along in a minute. I suddenly don’t feel well.
Vash hesitated at the door. Calli could see his indecision.
“Really,” she said. “It’s probably just the faces. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll be back to my old self.”
“If you’re sure.” And Vash was gone.
Calli removed the icon, which suddenly felt uncomfortable. She heard a light tapping on glass and looked around for its source as it continued, but no one was at Vash’s windows. Then she looked down at the glass between her breasts and saw a figure. Inside her chest was a tiny man. He looked exactly like her father.
Vash hurried, hoping Onri’s starhorse would be docked outside the colony in its usual spot. The ship sat at the edge of the cliffs, looking like a toppled chess piece. Onri poked at part of the cochlear drive of the craft, half-buried in its workings. The cavalier sang in his obscure dialect, off-key, but in a pleasant, soulful way.
“Onri!” Vash rapped on a rounded coil, trying to get the pilot’s attention.
Onri lifted his eyeball-shaped helmet. “Anh, Vash, is it not? What can a humble ferryman do for such a gallant knight?”
“That’s just it. I might not be a knight anymore. I think I beat my yesnobites, which means my tour on this planet could be over.”
“Mon dieu! Come. We adjourn to ze cargo hold, non?”
Vash and Onri entered the belly of the starhorse, away from the hot rays of the planet’s sun. After connecting Vash to a device made largely of needles and tubes, Onri began to mumble through the same unintelligible song as he tested Vash’s bloodstream.
“You are as pure as a mountain stream after ze spring thaw.” Onri started to unplug Vash. “However, you have not got long before ze yesnobites settle in again. Your tour of duty is over; but to keep you safe, I’d have to take you to ze Cutter rendezvous point at ze edge of ze star system and leave you time-snapped in a space buoy.”
Vash hesitated, thinking of Calli. But the mention of time-snapping reminded him of his son. “Take off.”
As the ship propelled itself toward the sky, Vash felt over his arms and chest. At last he would have silence again. He’d never forget what he’d done, but now it didn’t have to nag him in his sleep.
Vash sat and watched the pilot fly his starhorse as though he conducted an orchestra. “I guess I’m pretty lucky.”
“You are extraordinarily fortunate, mon ami. So long it has been since I met one who walked away from Bannanatattatantsia, or flew at any rate.”
“I couldn’t have done it on my own. I had thought about giving up, but my friend, Calli, helped me.”
Onri turned away from his mysterious controls. “Calli? La Amazona?” He continued his adjustments. “It is truth. Ze only way to survive one’s tour is by working together with fellows. You were very lucky to have her. Whom does she have now?”
Vash slammed his hand against the arm of his chair. “Stop. Turn back. I thought I could do this for the sake of my son, but I can’t just leave Calli. Take me back.”
“I cannot. It is a one way journey.”
“Please, Onri, I made a mistake.”
“Ze law forbids. You tour is over. I must take you to safety.”
Vash thought of a way around the law. “I’ll re-enlist. I can do that, can’t I?”
“Anh,” purred Onri through his speaker grill, “then you must press re-enlist button. It is ze big red one, back of ze bridge, covered in dust.”
Vash ran back to the colony, heading straight for Calli’s dome. He could hear the vendors preparing for breakfast at the market and smelled the exotic herbs. He wasn’t hungry; he simply navigated the maze of the colony streets. He heard the sound of an O-cannon building its charge behind him.
Vash stopped and turned around.
“That’s right, Blawk.” The colonel gave the nearly-parrot on his shoulder a treat. “This is that verminous traitor what left Calli.”
“Colonel,” said Vash, “I haven’t been gone that long. What do you mean by traitor?”
“You didn’t hear the screaming. You were out in space running away!”
“What screaming?” asked Vash. “What’s wrong with Calli? Colonel, I have to go.”
“Stop!” The colonel thrust his cannon in Vash’s way. Regardless of whether Go-lightly would use it, the cannon was too big for Vash to just dodge around. “You’re so keen on leaving, then git. If you had wanted to know what happened, you woulda been here.”
“Colonel, I left for maybe a tenth of a day, and when I left, Calli was fine.” Had she been? Maybe not. If Vash were going to get by, he’d have to pull out his big guns. “Did Mrs. T like her hands? I think so. Who made them? I did, and Calli’s hover cart, and Blawk’s roto-crib. What did I ask in return? Things for other people. Now I’m asking for something for me. Let me pass!”
The O-cannon powered down, and the colonel retracted it to its carrying position. “He does have a point, Blawk.” To Vash he said, “You’ve done a lot for us. It’s true, Vash. But this was damn selfish of you.”
“Colonel, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, about my son I was hoping to see again . . .”
“All right.” The colonel waved him past. “Go on. But don’t ever leave her again.”
Vash continued through the colony streets. He heard a commotion ahead. Several people gathered between the market and the cliffs. Vash broke through the crowd in time to see Calli and her cart hurtling toward the ledge. With no time to think, he dove from the edge, grabbing a flying buttress as the hover cart passed.
Instantly, it teetered and spun in sickening ellipsoids. Calli fought the control stick and looked back. “Vash? You jackass! What have you done?”
Vash struggled to get a better grip, hoping his one handhold didn’t break. How strong was iron? His legs dangled beneath him. Wind whistled past spires and over architectural filigree. Calli lessened their spin, but they still raced farther away from the cliff’s edge, thousands of feet above the titanium-tinted valley below.
“What have I done? Calli, I didn’t build this cart to fly. You’ll burn through the power cell this high above the ground.”
“That was the plan! But you’ve ruined it. I’ll turn back when I have control.”
Vash tried to puzzle through vector calculus and the power requirements of braking procedures to take his mind off the fact that he still didn’t have a decent foothold.
“I don’t think we can turn back now, Calli. Why’d you make me do something stupid, like trying to save you?”
“He’s inside me! I tried to get away. I came all the way to this planet only to find him inside me.”
Vash hooked a leg over Calli’s thigh. Unfortunately, his leg had gotten wedged between some very beautiful, yet painful structures.
“I don’t understand.” Vash winced.
“My father’s inside me. He’s behind the rose window in my chest. I haven’t been brave enough to look for my mother, yet.”
Vash tried not to pay attention to the spinning world around him. One handhold at a time closer to Calli’s front. Maybe two hands could steady the hover cart’s controls. “You might as well tell me the whole story. It’s about to come to an end anyway.”
Wind howled. “My father killed my mother.”
“Your father, the priest?” The hover cart now began a noticeable arc down toward the valley below.
“It doesn’t matter that he was a priest. He couldn’t bear my mother not listening to him when he told her to throw away her icon. She only wanted some color in her life, and he killed her! Hid her body in the loft behind the rose window, and ended services at the cathedral. I found her after I escaped from my room.”
“The icon you wear,” said Vash, “that was hers?”
“All I have left. And since my father’s dead, I can’t make him suffer for what he did.”
Vash had moved and could look Calli in the face. It was better than looking at the approaching ground. “So what did you mean about your father being in your chest?”
“The yesnobites didn’t just copy the cathedral, they copied him too. I saw him looking at me from the rose window.”
“And that’s why we’re flying to our deaths?”
“I wanted to do it alone. I didn’t mean to involve you. I thought you left, and I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.”
Vash looked up at the cathedral spires on Calli’s back and had an idea. He reached up and bent and tugged at one of the spires until it snapped off in his hand. “Hold this.”
“You’re not going to like what I do next.”
Vash smashed the violet window. Glass and blood fell away from the speeding cart. Calli yelled and tried to fight him, but he ignored her. In her chest, a toy-like caricature of a man cowered over a shrouded, shriveled body. Vash grabbed the toy man before it could escape. Holding it in front of Calli, he yelled, “Now! Kill it! Kill it now!”
With no hesitation, Calli thrust the iron spire through the homunculus and the hand that held it.
Vash’s last memory before blacking out from the pain was of him and Calli falling out of the sky and into the belly of a giant horse.
Calli looked down at her toes and watched them wiggle. She had almost forgotten what her body looked like: it had been so long since she’d seen it. Not that it looked exactly the same. She had scars she would never lose. However, after Onri had caught the falling pair in his starhorse, he had done a good job separating the cathedral from the Calli after her yesnobites had died. After a few days, the building had crumbled to gritty powder.
Vash started to wake and instantly Calli’s attention focused on him. She had had him put in his own bed in his dome, because she thought he’d respond better.
As Vash awoke, he did a double-take as he looked at Calli. “You’re sitting! You have legs! I knew you had them, but . . .”
“I know,” she said. “I beat my yesnobites too, with your help.” She took his hand.
“But you’re still here.” Vash looked puzzled.
“I re-enlisted too. It was the least I could do, since you did the same. I think maybe our tours will be shorter this time. Then we can both get your son, together.”
Vash smiled and squeezed her hand.
Someone knocked at the door. Calli answered.
Mrs. TVscreen and the colonel (who was too big to fit through the door) held hands outside. Blawk snored peacefully in the turret of the colonel’s O-cannon, and Calli could see the birds doing loop-the-loops on Mrs. T’s screens.
–Hello, dears. We just wanted to check in on you two.–
“Heard you took a tumble, Vash,” said the colonel. “Walk it off, trooper.”
–We heard you’re staying with us.– The words on Mrs. TVscreen’s monitors scrolled past.
“For a little while longer,” answered Vash. “What about you?”
Mrs. TVscreen glanced at the colonel. –Oh, we’ll probably stay for life.–
After a few more pleasantries, the visitors left. Calli closed the door.
“I made you something,” said Vash. “I had planned to give it to you before everything happened. It’s on the table over there. Take a look.”
She did. A metal plate lay on the table. Etched deep in its surface were the words, UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
Calli had to laugh.
Onri piloted his starhorse away from the planet. His hands moved deftly over the controls, setting them for an automatic patrol around the system. He stared through his lens at the blackest sea. Perhaps he would compose a new tune dedicated to other lonely mariners, like himself.
He felt a curious bubbling and prickling in his hands and glanced down at them. The edges of his gauntlets grew hazy and indistinct. He lifted them and watched horrified as his hands quickly disintegrated, like a fog blown in the breeze. What remained drifted away, carried by the currents of his ship’s circulation system.
Only then did Onri know: despite all his precautions, despite his armor, the yesnobites were settling in.