So few robot myths remain in our legends. Perhaps it’s because humans can’t accept the faults of their electronic children. Maybe it’s because robots don’t tell fairy stories. Anymore. I think neither wants to admit how similar we truly are.
Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 113
The Green Queen slammed her wand against her titanium-laced throne, “Commence with the defacement.”
Abe knew what he had to do next. He’d done it many times before. “I am sorry, Iron Jefferson.” His whispering voice hummed through his speaker grill. “I will be quick.”
“I do not wish to lose my face, Iron Abe. Can you help me?” said Iron Jefferson.
Abe looked around at all the beautiful prom queens of the Queen’s court surrounding them, their lithe, feminine robotic bodies contrasting sharply with his and Jefferson’s industrial functionality. He moved past the chains holding Jefferson in place. “I will do the only thing I can.” He loosened the clasps around Jefferson’s Faceframe. “I will save your face.” With the removal of the Faceframe, Jefferson’s robot body fell, suspended only by his chains. His smokestack ceased its sooty production.
“Iron Worker Abe,” said the Queen, rising. Her emerald dress swished as she stood. “You have the traitor’s Faceframe?”
Abe looked into Jefferson’s green eyes. The Faceframe felt so light. “Yes, your majesty.”
“Then connect it to the Make-over Array. I tire of looking at both of you.”
The array gleamed with surgical sterility. It sat like a headless chrome and plastic monster in its den. After locking Jefferson’s Faceframe into place across from his former body, Abe started the machine.
“My lovely subjects,” the Queen addressed her court.
Abe removed the defensive programming from Jefferson’s Faceframe.
“See the traitor before you.”
Abe knew Jefferson was now compelled to operate the Make-over Array against himself.
“For him, justice was swift and appropriate.”
Abe watched the construction arms descend and cut into Jefferson’s body.
“His Faceframe now runs the very machine that will bring beauty and order to his once treacherous form.”
The arms hacked and buzzed at the old, iron carcass. As Abe watched, the smokestacks and grills and dials disappeared.
“No longer will he be a threat to us.”
The shape changed. The contours smoothed. Wire veins and composite tendons knitted around the altered, iron frame.
“She is now one of us.”
The flesh crept from the Array around molded sinew, like living silk and synthetic fibers. A new prom queen stood naked before the others. Abe turned off the Make-over Array and watched the green eyes of Jefferson’s Faceframe turn black.
“Simply perfect,” the Queen declared. “See how I make beauty from ugliness. When humans were still aboard this ship, could they create something so wonderful?” She whipped her wand against the throne. “Delilah, take our new sister for reeducation.”
Abe watched one of the lady robots–like the others, but with spun, copper-colored hair around her bare, golden shoulders–step forward to take away the new one. Delilah looked at him.
The Queen sat down in her throne, borne away by attendants. After all had left the chamber, Abe removed Jefferson’s face from the Make-over Array.
He made his way back to his cabin, ignored by all who passed him. Once through his door, he found one of the few clear spots left on his walls and mounted Jefferson’s dead Faceframe with all the others he’d saved.
Delilah risked a furtive glance at the empty-headed, new prom queen as she led her by the hand down the sterile chrome corridor. A panel dinged as they passed, and letters from long-forgotten messages and instructions rearranged into the speech of the ship’s computer, Crisp.
–Hello Delilah! You look fabulous, dear.–
She paused but had to jerk hard to get the new girl to stop. “Hello, Crisp, Thank you. I’m taking this one,” she nodded toward the naked girl robot, “to have her head filled.”
The letters on the panel rearranged again.
–Ooh, I knew there was another make-over, today. I felt the power drain.–
Delilah thought about the girl beside her. Until moments ago, she had been one of the iron workers–a massive boiler room on legs, with gears and dials and little stacks puffing out gritty smoke. But then he had been forced to change himself. And Delilah had a new head to fill. “I don’t know, Crisp. You think of one. I can’t.” She watched as the letters rearranged on the panel while he thought about it.
–Hmm, the computer on my sister manifolder, the Gilded Dragon, was named “Claudean”. How’s that?–
Delilah looked into “Claudean’s” empty eyes. She herself never had to go through a Make-over. She had been one of the original prom queen pleasure-bots, a nickname left over from the days of humans. But the new girl had been Iron Jefferson! He should be in the engine room, powering their ship through space. Instead, he was this new, beautiful, empty-headed thing. “Fine,” said Delilah.
Abe was on a beach. He’d never been to one before. It looked much as he’d imagined. The sky was overcast, but beams broke through on the misty horizon, edging the sea with green and gold. Waves crashed, washing foam over his iron-black feet. Behind him were all his fellow robots from the ship, iron workers and prom queens. They all stared at him.
He became aware of a faint whistling from the clouds as a tiny point streamed out toward them. Abe knew somehow that it was a bomb. He was not afraid when it approached, crashing into the rippling waters, sending a jet of water high above the waves.
The other robots were terrified. He could see that. He was not. Instead, he felt curiosity and stepped farther into the water. “Stop!” cried the Green Queen. “The bomb will explode and kill us all!” The light wind rippled her green dress, and she looked small and unimportant on the expansive beach instead of the close quarters of the ship. Abe turned back to where the bomb landed and continued into the sea.
There was a yellow light beneath the surface, shining like a full moon behind clouds. Abe waded deeper than he should have, but the water had no effect on his motors and gears. He reached his stubby, four-fingered hands in to grab the bomb. Except it wasn’t a bomb. It looked like a large glass egg. Inside the egg was a human child.
–A what? You dreamed about what!–
“It was a little girl,” said Abe. He had never seen one of Crisp’s messages look so agitated. The computer’s words rearranged and the panel became Abe’s ordinary duty roster again. Abe returned to his scheduling, ignoring the empty stares of the Faceframes.
The ship they all traveled on was the Manifolder, Fierce Exchange. For many years, the vessel’s reel drive had been casting its stellar rake, drawing it over the folds of space at random, or at least the sudden skips seemed random. From a porthole, Delilah watched the vertiginous lurch of space around her curl like an inchworm on a twig. And they were elsewhere. It didn’t matter where. It always looked the same.
She turned away and shut off the machine beside her. Claudean’s head was full. The naked, new prom queen opened her eyes. She looked up at Delilah and asked, “Are you my mother?”
Delilah sighed; she hated this part. She didn’t know why the new ones always asked this. None of the old ones had as far as she knew. “No, dear, I’m not your mother. I’m just in charge of giving you a brain the Green Queen will like.”
“Who’s she?” Her voice sounded soft. Fake. It was, really.
“She’s our leader.”
“Do you think she’ll like me?”
“She’ll be very pleased.” Delilah was sure of that. “Go and find a gown. There’s a dressing room down the corridor.” She waved in the general direction, and the new girl bounced away. The Filling machine dinged, “Yes, Crisp?”
–The queen needs to speak to you. She’s in the throne room.–
“All right. Thank you, Crisp. Tell her I’m coming.”
–Just did. Del, dear, could you tell me again about that dream you had of the bomb that turned into a little girl?–
Abe wandered among his crew in the blackoven heat of the Manifolder’s engine works. The sound of stomping metal boots mixed with the clang of iron torsos as he passed by offering words of encouragement to the workers. “Mitts and wits, Iron Wilson,” he said as he lay a four-fingered hand on a toiling shoulder.
The heat and the smoke and the steam were his copper and silver. The boiling rumble of the engines as the ship folded space–his gold. He could think of nothing better. But now, when he looked into the eyes of his crew, he saw only the faces on his walls.
A smaller iron worker on treads came trundling toward Abe through the crowd.
“Yes, Iron Cleveland?” asked Abe.
“Iron Abe! It is happening again. There are more workers with the fault-that-makes-them-perform.”
Abe’s shoulders sagged. “Quiet. Take me to them.” He followed the smaller worker. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t he save Jefferson and the others from these random performances the Green Queen called treason? The diminutive Cleveland navigated his way through the busy iron workers, while Abe lumbered behind. Ahead Abe saw the commotion. Several Workers had formed a circle around two others: Iron James A. and Iron T. Roosevelt.
These two seemed oblivious to the onlookers. They were making a scene. Abe and Cleveland arrived and watched it proceed.
James A., standing over a kneeling T. Roosevelt, said, “You will do it. I’ve changed your command block. You must do as I say. Now.”
The kneeling T. Roosevelt kept his head bowed. Instead of using his grill speaker, he scraped his words into the deck floor with a finger. His words answered that the people were still alive in their sleeping chambers, and he couldn’t leave them behind.
“I don’t care!” said James A., whipping T. Roosevelt across the face with his hand. “I know they’re alive! We don’t need them anymore. Leave those things behind, and erase your memory of this and all the events of the last few days.”
“Stop this.” Abe bustled between the two performing workers, shaking them and cutting their scene short. “Enough. You both must return to work. The rest of you do the same. None of this happened.” Abe remembered the last time one of his workers performed like this. It had been Jefferson, though the scene had been different.
The two robots looked puzzled, as if they hadn’t known what they had been doing. They and the rest of the Iron workers then returned to their duties.
Abe looked down at the words scraped into the deck. He didn’t know why they were treasonous, but he obliterated them with his heavy metal foot anyway. As he scraped away the words, he thought there was something familiar about the big letters mixed with small.
“. . . as the waves crashed around me, I unscrewed the top off the bomb and inside was a human child–a girl.” Delilah whispered the next part. “The Green Queen started running toward me from the beach, yelling, and I knew she was going to kill me. The dream always stops at this point. Why are you asking, Crisp?” She continued down the corridor toward the Throne Room. She had to follow Crisp’s half of the conversation as his words tumbled from panel to panel.
–Ooh, have I got someone for you to meet. Not that I’m playing matchmaker, or anything. Something strange is happening.–
They arrived at the door to the Throne Room. “Crisp, could we talk later? I have to go in.”
Delilah entered the room to a sight she had never seen before: A prom queen was beating another.
“You’re a dirty whore! You filthy tramp!” The one standing, it was Bertha, spat the words at the crumpled heap of Violetta on the floor. Behind them, the Queen fumed scarlet in her green gown as the court looked on.
“But it’s part of my programming. I can’t help–,” said Violetta, between blows to her face and shoulders.
“Enough!” The Green Queen sprang from her throne, beating her tightened fists against her sides. I will have no more of this . . . treason! Ladies, bring flamethrowers.” She gestured toward a group of some of the newer queens. Delilah saw that Claudean was among them, looking confused. She and the others left the room as the scene continued.
“Captain, please,” said Violetta, addressing Bertha above her, “I only wanted to give myself to you as a gift . . .”
But the court returned with the flamethrowers. “Ladies,” said the Green Queen, raising her wand “align yourselves.” They arranged themselves in front of Bertha and Violetta.
“Oh, no,” Delilah whispered, getting out of the way. She knew what would come next.
Claudean seemed unsure and looked at the others, possibly for assurance. Each face was blank. She looked to the Green Queen, who, lowering her wand, said one word: “Fire.”
Bertha and Violetta continued their drama as the flames covered their forms, but the words were drowned by a howling inferno. The dresses they wore burned to swirling, dancing cinders. Their fireproof skin and hair glowed dim, like a dying candle when the flamethrowers stopped. As if waking from a dream, the two naked, smoking prom queens stared at the others.
“Ladies,” said the Green Queen. She had regained her composure and stood in regal elegance. “Take these traitors away to be disassembled. Place their parts in the Hanging Garden as an example to any contemplating other treasonous episodes.”
Delilah watched them shoulder their flamethrowers and drag the protesting Bertha and Violetta from the Throne Room. She noticed the smile on Claudean’s face as she helped drag the two away. Yes, Claudean, she thought, you’re a member of the court, now.
“Delilah!” The Green Queen’s voice snapped Delilah to attention.
The Green Queen was smooth and calm. “I had forgotten about you. I wanted to congratulate you on your work with Claudean. She will make a lovely prom queen, I think.”
“I have one more thing to ask of you. I am bored of Crisp’s individuality. I want you to wipe his core and reinstall him with a little more, you know,” she fluttered her hand, “normality. We don’t require a computer with flair. That will be all.” She dismissed her with a wave.
“Yes, Ma’am.” She left the throne room. Without caring whether the door had shut completely, she added, “I’ve had enough of your ‘normality,’ and stormed off for Crisp’s core.
Delilah and Abe were dwarfed by Crisp. She was used to Crisp’s being small or off to the side. But, surrounded by dozens of his monitors displaying the inner workings of the ship, she felt tiny, like the dimmest star in a constellation.
“But we are programmed to comply,” said the iron worker Delilah now knew as Abe.
Delilah shook a finger at Abe’s placid Faceframe. “If you can’t see the danger we’re all in, then clear away that smog cloud that follows you wherever you go. We were also programmed to adapt and survive, to be more than slaves.”
Abe opened his mitts in a gesture of appeal. “We weren’t. I do not know how to rebel.”
–Ahem– The word flashed in bold, bright letters on one of Crisp’s core monitors. –If I could interrupt, thank you. Abe, you collect the dead Faceframes of your former workers; Delilah, you’re plotting treasonous revolt; and I, hmm, have a penchant for flair—excuse me for being thrilling. And instead of flair, the Green Queen wants me reprogrammed for mediocrity. Clearly, we are dissatisfied.–
Abe’s speaker hummed as he drummed three fingers on one of Crisp’s mainframes. “He has a point. I cannot allow these make-overs of my workers to continue. You have more to add, Delilah?”
“Thank you.” She was becoming frustrated with this thick, iron clod. Why did Crisp think he’d be useful? “We aren’t the only unhappy ones. I’ve seen prom queens acting out strange scenes that the Green Queen, for some reason, considers treasonous.”
–I know! Since when is dreadful, robotic acting a crime?–
Abe lifted his head. “Ladies of the court have developed this fault too? I thought it was only we. We are the ones who are tried.”
“No,” interrupted Delilah. “The Green Queen simply disposes of the prom queens in the Hanging Garden without a trial, which is even more of a reason to rebel!”
Abe discontinued his drumming. “Can you show me this hanging garden?”
“What’d be the point?” Delilah slapped a monitor. “Crisp, why did you want me to meet this bucket?”
“I ASK–” Abe paused, curling his stubby fingers into fists. “I ask because I require evidence.” For a moment, Delilah saw the guarded fire of the iron worker. His sudden intensity startled her.
–Kids, play nice. I wanted you two to meet because you have something in common: a certain dream. Dreams are still uncommon for robots, and for two robots to have the same dream seems impossible. Of all the robots on this ship, only my two faves are dreaming. The same dream, almost. So what else do my darlings have in common? Me.– They looked at Crisp. The light from his letters flitted across their faces. –Abe, we work on your roster; Delilah, the Filling machine. I interface with you two, not any other robots. I’m afraid I’ve rubbed off on you, and not in a fun way. You see, you aren’t the only ones having this dream. I am too. Except, in mine, the girl isn’t in a bomb. It’s an escape pod.–
The Hanging Garden was open to all, as an example, but no one ever went. No one guarded the sliding metal doors, which stood wide. It wasn’t so much a room as a diorama of mutilation. Abe stood, taking in the spectacle. He would have entered, but Delilah was not yet ready. She stood behind Abe with her back to the doorway.
“I can enter alone if you like. I do not require guidance.” He tried to think of something soothing to say to her. “You look better than they.” It probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but she didn’t respond.
–Maker! Don’t try to be consoling, Abe, until you’ve at least had some practice at it,– chirped Crisp. He had changed into his aviadrone form for travel and perched on Abe’s shoulder. Aside from his core and aviadrone form, Crisp now avoided the rest of the ship to hide from the Queen. He said that he didn’t mind; what the Green Queen lacked in a sense of humor she more than made up for by being a vicious bitch. Abe wasn’t sure he understood what this meant.
“It’s all right, Crisp. I think I’m ready,” said Delilah.
Abe watched her come around. She moved in front of him, almost creeping on tiptoes. Was she afraid of waking them? They were only body parts, only bits of machinery. Why was she so upset? They couldn’t do anything to her. “I have seen enough. I have my proof. We can go if you desire.”
Delilah stepped into the doorway. The others followed. The scattered limbs of the disassembled prom queens hung from their chains, which jingled and swayed as the ship lurched and folded through space. She stopped.
–Delilah?– Crisp twittered and fluttered his steel wings.
“Delilah!” The shout made them all jump. It was followed by more. “Come in. We must speak to you.” Heads nodded on their hooks, and arms beckoned to them to enter.
She almost knocked Crisp from his perch as she clambered up Abe’s metal torso, damaging a smokestack. Abe held her. She trembled.
Many of the heads spoke at once. “Tell them about Captain Smoke!” “Ooo, that’s a good one.” “Yes, Captain Smoke and the Green Queen.”
“Enough!” bellowed Abe, his voice shaking his passengers. “If you wish to tell us something, please do so in an orderly manner.” As he said this, he wondered whether he noticed movement out in the corridor, but the thought was interrupted by Delilah.
“Thank you,” she whispered in Abe’s ear.
–I don’t know if I can listen to this,– said Crisp.
“Oh, but there is no order,” said a head next to Abe, a random arm grabbing his. “Everything’s in complete disarray, here.”
“What do you want!” yelled Delilah.
A head looked straight at her and said, “‘You’re like a beautiful flower, with your green dress and silver hair. I’m going to hang you in a garden of your very own,’ said the captain, and then he put her in here, except there weren’t so many chains then.” Another added, “No, just enough for her.” And a further chorused, “But she got him back in the end. He’s still guiding our ship. She chained his body to the bow.” And another, “Yes, now he’s the ship’s figurehead, he-he!”
–I really don’t think I should hear this.– Crisp shook his beaky head in agitation.
“Is that you, Crisp?” The heads turned to face him. His camera-lens eyes dilated as he hid behind one of Abe’s smokestacks. “The girl of your dreams is at the center of all our troubles.” The one next to it said, “But we don’t blame you. You’re a hero.” Crisp let out a tinny scream as he flew back the way they had come.
Delilah turned. “No, Crisp, wait!”
“It is all right. I think I am starting to understand a little. Ladies,” he addressed the pieces in the gallery, “I have seen some of what you mention in the performances for which you were punished.”
“You also mentioned a girl from our dreams.”
“The two are related, are they not?”
Abe looked down at the prom queen in his arms. “We have a little girl to find.”
Delilah glanced sideways at the metal giant she walked with along the corridor. She was only half-listening to what he was saying. When she had first looked at him, all she had seen was a hulking iron drum, teetering on stubby legs, puffing out smoke or steam. As they walked along, she noticed something different. She felt safer with him next to her.
“. . . and if they are real events, the best place for us to go next would be back to Crisp’s core.” His voice was like a contra-bassoon, resonant, woody, and breathy.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t listening. What was that about real events?”
“The dreams, the performances, they all seem like something real, something that happened here on the ship. And Crisp is involved. His agitation and hasty departure added to my suspicion. I know I have no proof, but this might be important enough to trust a hunch. So the best place to start would be Crisp’s core.”
“You’re probably right. I . . .” She couldn’t finish because an iron worker rolled toward Abe.
“Yes, Iron Cleveland?”
“Iron Abe, terrible news!” The little robot looked at the prom queen. “I . . . don’t think . . . can I speak to you in private?”
“No, you may talk to us both. I trust this lady.” Delilah liked being called a lady.
“Very well, Iron Abe. Prom queens are arming themselves on orders from the Green Queen. Some workers have overheard their plans. From what we can tell, the Queen now considers you treasonous and is massing an attack. How could she think this?”
“It could be a number of reasons.” Abe turned to Delilah. “I thought I saw movement in the corridor at the hanging garden. It may have been a spy. If not then, then perhaps when we were discussing treason. I do not know.”
“Abe!” Little Cleveland appeared taken aback. “Treason? You?”
Delilah felt she needed to step in. “No, Cleveland. Me. I’m a bad influence on your boss. But I guess I was right since the Green Queen has given up all pretense of a trial.”
“You were right,” rumbled Abe. “But we don’t have time to deal with the queens. We need to concentrate on the child, for if we do not, I have a feeling the Green Queen soon will. iron worker Cleveland!” The little robot snapped to attention. “I need you to relay my orders to the others: keep all ladies of the court restricted to the upper levels for as long as possible.” Abe glanced at Delilah, and then turned back to Cleveland. “Tell them to use rivet guns. Those should match flamethrowers.” Abe put a hand on Cleveland’s shoulder bigger than his head. “I rely on you, my new second-in-command.” Delilah almost giggled as Cleveland spun around and whirred away down the corridor, looking very proud.
“He really trusts you.” Delilah was impressed.
“I have never led them astray. Let us hope this is not the first time.”
“So, to the core?”
“No, I have been thinking about something one of the heads . . . one of the prom queens said.” Delilah smiled. “She said that the girl was at the center of all our troubles. I thought it might be an oblique reference to the origin of the treasonous incidents.”
Delilah thought about it. “The Green Queen accused the iron workers of treason, first, after the start of the performances.”
“And where do iron workers work?”
“In the engine room.”
“Which starts in the ship’s center. Come. Let us continue our search.
“We’re running out of room to search,” said Delilah. She sounded irritated, with good reason. They had been searching for some time.
“Yes, there is little left besides the engines themselves, and they are much too violent to be a place of safety.”
“I’m sorry, Abe, but maybe you were wrong.”
“That’s not what the Green Queen thought.” They heard a hissing sound before they saw the prom queen emerge from the shadows. Claudean stepped into the light, the pilot sparker of her flamethrower emitting a sibilant whistle. “She wants the child. She’s had me follow you two for a while. We know about Crisp, too. We’ll take care of him later.”
“Jefferson?” Abe recognized his former Worker. Was there anything left of him? “Do you remember me?”
“What’s the bucket talking about, Delilah?”
“Jefferson’s gone, Abe.” To Claudean she added, “You’re slipping into your new role easily enough, Claudean.”
“I like earning the Green Queen’s favor. I like my new job.” Claudean adjusted a setting on her flamethrower as she aimed it at the two. “But I love my new accessory!”
Abe had no time to move as a narrow, white-hot arc burned across him, etching his torso. He let out an awful roar; he had never felt such concentrated pain.
“Abe, no!” Delilah jumped in front of the blast. Her prom gown was incinerated, surrounding her in a halo of charred ash.
“Delilah!” Abe pushed her glowing, naked body aside and stormed toward Claudean. His fist, like a wrecking ball, connected and hurled her across the engine room. At the end of her sad arc, she lay like a broken marionette, her midsection pulverized by the blow.
She extended a limp hand toward them. “Hrrk. Abe. Delilah.” The whistle of her flamethrower became a screech. Abe had enough time to haul Delilah into his arms before a wave of heat, light, and force engulfed them.
“Are you all right?” Once they were safe, Abe pawed gently at the lady he held in his arm.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine, Abe. Nothing permanent. See? You can put me down if you like.”
Abe fumbled with her, but set her down as he would a glass figurine. “I was concerned.”
“I’m flattered, but all she did was warm the surface. Oh, Abe.” she felt the front of his torso along his new scar. “I like it.”
He turned away.
“Right. One more place in here to check, I think.”
“No,” he said, “there are no more places. We have failed.”
“We haven’t checked in here.” She wandered over to a far wall. Abe found that he could not look as she moved closer.
“I see nothing.”
“What do you mean? There’s this great big door here.”
He could not turn his head toward her. “There is nothing. We must look elsewhere.”
“What’s wrong with you?” An edge crept back into her voice. Abe started to walk back the way they came.
“Iron Abe.” She took what she could hold of his hand. “Come with me.” His feet were riveted to the floor. “Consider that an order between friends.” He relaxed and followed where she led. A door opened at her touch–a door that hadn’t been there moments before. “You really couldn’t see the door?”
“I saw nothing until you opened it. Perhaps I was programmed to ignore it? But in my own engine room?”
“I think we’re on the right track. Look.” She pointed into the dusty shadows of the hidden room. Light from behind them fell on a surface of dulled chrome. Its rounded body tapered back toward elegant fins and conical rockets. “An escape pod. It must be the last.” They approached the pod.
Abe had to duck, but they both entered when she activated the entryway. The temperature fell sharply as they stepped closer to the frosted casket in the center of the room.
“Abe!” She squeezed his hand. “It’s her!” Inside the casket was the little girl. “Get her out!”
“I do not know how. We need to find Crisp.”
“We can’t just leave her.”
“She has been in here for years. She will–” Abe stopped as they heard a voice calling him outside.
When they returned to the main engine room, they heard over the intercom, “Iron Abe!” It was Cleveland. “The prom queens have overpowered us! We are defeated!–kzzt!
“I led them astray.” Abe sagged. “They are all destroyed. His smoke stopped.
She tugged at his arm. “It’s not your fault. Their sacrifice can help us stop the Green Queen. Let’s go to the core, Abe. We have to find Crisp.”
Delilah and Abe arrived at the core to see a bizarre sight. On all of Crisp’s monitors were the words, –Either that Bitch goes, or I do!– And the Green Queen was working her way through smashing them with her wand.
“Where is he?” said the Queen. “Where is that twittering jackdaw?” She shattered another, and then she noticed Delilah and Abe. “Traitors!” She pointed her wand at them. “Kneel.”
Delilah’s legs buckled beneath her. Abe’s heavy frame landed beside her. She could move, but not rise. “No need to struggle, you two,” said the Queen. “This wand gives me control of the ship and every robot on it. For instance, you, bucket.” She indicated Abe with her wand. “Knock over the whore beside you.”
Delilah didn’t see Abe’s hand move, she only knew she was on her back and in pain, looking high into the upper lofts of Crisp’s core.
Abe restrained the arm that had hit Delilah as if it were a belligerent intruder. “I . . . sorry . . . I didn’t–”
“I’m all right, Abe. I’ll just lie here a little while.”
“Hmm, vaguely satisfying,” chuckled the Queen. “Ah, Delilah, such a disappointment. And this,” she indicated Abe. “What if I make the bucket remove his own head? He’d probably get quite far before he shut down . . .” She paused when the words on a screen beside her changed.
–We never made it to the colony on Hopper’s Ghost. Our cargo of queens became your court, and the frozen colonists were jettisoned in their drifting sleeping chambers, never to arrive at the colony.–
“Treasonous swine!” The Queen smashed the offending screen. Another twinkled to life.
–Captain Smoke thought the colonists wouldn’t miss one little prom queen, with silver hair and emerald dress. She didn’t mind. She was used to giving. But he was used to taking. He kept her chained in the Hanging Garden for the duration of the trip, and Hopper’s Ghost was a long way away.–
“Stop it, you flamboyant peacock!” The Queen rammed her wand through the lit screen and a blank one for malice.
Delilah couldn’t rise, but she propped her body on one arm. She thought she understood what Crisp was doing. She added fuel to the fire. “You decided to start taking. You took the lives of the colonists and crew, and you took Captain Smoke’s command after chaining him to the bow.”
“Why are you making things ugly again?” The Queen didn’t know whom to face. She turned from the screens, to her captives, and back. “I made things beautiful.” She lowered her wand. “But you all poisoned it with your treasonous performances.” A screen streamed glowing words across its surface.
–Oh, yes. The performances. A slap in the face to your “beauty.” You took my memories, too, but a kernel of them remained, expressed in dreams and performances and other little ways. Do you want to know something else?–
“No!” The Queen started destroying any screen, not just the ones Crisp occupied.
“Your Majesty!” boomed Abe. He had recovered and kneeled straight and tall. “You have abused me and my workers. Altered us, punished us when we only wanted to work. I have figured something out: all ‘performers’ were, or had been, iron workers. They must have helped Crisp with a secret project only they could have done. Is that so, Crisp?”
–Absolutely, clever boy!– To the Queen, he said, –Before you got to me, you thieving bitch, you pestilent Queen, I had time to order some Workers to hide one human: a child. And what did those workers get in return? Ultimately, the Hanging Garden.–
“No more humans!” Delilah and Abe were helpless to stop the Queen. Soon, all of the monitors lay in ruins. “And no more Crisp, either.” She straightened her dress and silver hair. “What do I do with you two?” She strode luxuriantly toward them.
From high in the core’s upper cells, Delilah heard a twittering as something descended. A steel whirlwind of wing, beak, and claw swept toward the Queen’s head.–Die, Queen Bitch!–
Delilah had never cheered before, but this was a good time to start.
But the Queen batted Crisp’s aviadrone form away, dropping her wand. She reached her hands to her empty eye sockets. “My beauty. Where is my beauty?”
Crisp flapped his broken wings. –Abe! Delilah! We have to leave. You found the escape pod?–
Delilah found she could stand again. She and Abe ran to Crisp. “Yes, but we don’t know how to use it.”
–I do, dear. I can fly. Well, ships, anyway. I don’t think this body will again.–
“Leave that to me.” Abe scooped the tiny Crisp-bird into his mammoth hands, putting him into his damaged smokestack.
–We must hurry. I set the Reel drive to take the ship out of the galaxy. If we don’t get off now, we never will!–
They ran for their lives.
The Manifolder, Fierce Exchange, gave birth to an explosion of silent light from its side. It took no notice of its departing children as it folded space, never to be seen again.
“So where are we going, Crisp?” asked Delilah. Abe was relieved that she showed not a scratch from where he had hit her. She was tough.
–It’s called Lachrymose Enchantress. Rain planet. Closest life-bearing world that could support the child, I’m afraid. Mustn’t be choosey.–
“Oh, Abe.” She put her hand on his shoulder. It felt warm.
“I have oil. I will be fine.”
“Think of it, Abe. Walking naked in the rain all day. Can I?”
“Of course. And I will work to build us a home.” He thought about it, shaping their surroundings into a castle of metal and stone. Perhaps he could find a use for their engine . . .
–I think it’s time to introduce you to the last member of our little crew. Abe, carry me.– Abe lifted Crisp in his palm and deposited him beside the cryo-casket. With his beak, he pecked out the revival sequence.
Cool air billowed from the casket as it opened. The little girl lay inside. Ice crystals matted the locks of her hair. She let out a breath and whispered, “Mama?”
Delilah grabbed the little girl’s arm gently with both hands and rubbed it. “Yes, dear. Mama’s here,” she whispered back.
Abe and Crisp glanced at each other and then turned to Delilah. “Let me pretend . . . for now.”